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Analysis | Day Zero, the day the water runs out in Cape Town

cape town

Day Zero is looming in Cape Town, the day the city effectively runs out of water.

To run out of water in a major, modern city sounds unthinkable, but in Cape Town the threat is real. In a bid to impress upon the city’s residents just how serious the situation is, the authorities have named the day when it will happen.

According to the government, if residents do not severely curb their water usage, the taps will be cut off on 12 April. After this date, water will only be available from around 200 collection points and limited to 25l per person.

High temperatures and a lack of rain over the last three years have depleted reservoirs and in May 2017 a drought was formally declared.

At the end of September last year, water restrictions on residents were increased to target a city-wide use of only 500M.l per day. At the time, water usage in the city was around 618M.l per day, but today the usage still stands at around 608M.l, with only 41% of people adhering to the 87l a day personal allowance. This allowance will drop to 50l on 1 February and a higher price for water will be charged.

The South African Government is now coming under fire with opposition parties claiming the water crisis has been mismanaged.

So how has South Africa’s second largest city been allowed to get to this point?

Specialist water consultant Ricardo director for water and environment practice Daressa Frodsham says complacency is at the root of it.

“The lesson learned is don’t be complacent,” she says. “I think there was an assumption that these events are impossible and people couldn’t imagine it happening.”

Although the UK has a different climate to the coastal town in South Africa, Frodsham says it still has plans in place to deal with a situation like the one facing Cape Town. As part of the plans to design for a 1 in 500 drought (the UK equivalent to Cape Town’s current 1 in 300 event) she said water levels were monitored carefully and should they start to drop, procedures would be implemented to conserve water supplies when trigger points were hit.

WSP water strategy director Mike Woolgar agrees, adding an effective water leakage management plan should be implemented with haste.

“It’s always difficult to manage drought as no one can predict when rain will fall,” says Woolgar. ”But, it should focus on trigger points relating to storage in reservoirs or groundwater which require actions to be taken such as demand management to reduce the pressure on the resource. In addition, leakage control activity needs to be addressed. These steps need to be taken in order to maximise the effective use of the available water.”

It is not clear if the same plans were in place in Cape Town, or if they were, then whether they were implemented properly or swiftly enough. Evidence suggests leakages have not been tackled with government minister Mokonyane urging the city to “address water losses due to leaks as a mechanism to further prevent unnecessary water losses”.

Going forward Ricardo head of international business development for the water division Mohsin Hafeez says based on the work he has done in Australia, a better understanding of rain catchment areas, installation of rainwater tanks to collect what little water there is to use in toilets and a more holistic approach taken to the seasonal forecasting of water fall and needs could help in the future.

For now, he says speeding up construction of the city’s new desalination plants and changing the attitudes of the people affected towards their water use is key.

Water crisis statistics 

As of 22 January the City of Cape Town authority said:

  • It had made 57% progress on securing alternative water sources (mainly from desalination plants, ground water and recycling water)
  • Its reservoirs were 27.2% full
  • Only 41% of its residents were using the recommended 87l of water per day
  • Amount of water used in a toilet flush varies between 6l to 13l.
  • Recommended shower length is 2 minutes

Pictured is a photo of Cape Town city bowl with the Molteno Reservoir before the water crisis.

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