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April 5, 2018updated 29 Jul 2021 11:37am

Cape Town is running out of water – so why isn’t the government acting?

By Jordan Pfotenhauer

For the past few months, residents of Cape Town have had one thing on their minds: Day Zero. This ominous title refers to the date when the water supply will be cut off. Taps will run dry, and residents will have to queue, buckets in hand, at depot stations scattered around the city for their daily supply. No major metro has ever run out of water or had to plan for such an operation. 

While previous estimates had Day Zero scheduled for some time in April, it has now been postponed until next year – a result, the City claims, of residents saving enough water to maintain supplies until the upcoming rainy season. However, one would be justified in taking this with a pinch of salt. The city confidently predicted that previous seasons would bring sufficient rain to stave off a crisis, an estimate that proved massively incorrect. In fact, Cape Town has experienced three consecutive record-breaking years of low rainfall. Meanwhile, dams – the primary sources of water to the region – continue to see their levels drop at a rate of around 1 per cent per week.

South Africa’s Constitution guarantees access to water as a right and imposes a positive duty on the state to protect that right. Given this, the astronomical costs of Day Zero actually occurring, the electoral harm such a crisis could inflict and the profound embarrassment of being the first major city in the world to run out of water, it is remarkable just how dithering the political response has been.

The Democratic Alliance, which runs the city of Cape Town and the entire Western Cape province, is the largest opposition party in South Africa. With its impressive performance in the 2016 local government elections and the ruling ANC plagued by more corruption scandals than it can count, the DA had its eyes set on what was previously unthinkable: enough votes in the 2019 national election to govern the country, even if only in coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters.

The water crisis makes this look increasingly unlikely. The DA argues that the drought was difficult to predict; that the national government has been uncooperative; and that the public has not done enough to save water. This last accusation is particularly surprising: attempts at spreading the water-saving message have been tame and ineffective. Almost no billboards have been erected with info on the crisis and no TV ads have been run.

And while the party attracted ire earlier this month for a series of incendiary  text messages about land reform, no such targeted system has been used to educate citizens about the water crisis.  Many of the DA’s broadcasts have been couched in a feel-good, unserious sentimentality, such as a 2016 YouTube video where Western Cape premier Helen Zille suggests “showering with a friend” to save water.  The launch of ‘Splash’, a water-saving mascot, backfired when the character faced online mockery for its unintentionally terrifying appearance.

The decision to scrap Day Zero for the year is baffling, too. There is no sign that it is any less likely to occur, and its looming presence, although dramatic, was clearly the most effective mechanism at encouraging water-saving. Reports already suggest that since Day Zero’s postponement, Cape Town’s water consumption has increased again. The DA seems to want to have its cake and eat it, attempting to warn residents of the impending crisis and urging them to change their lifestyles, while simultaneously avoiding any public campaigns that might make the city look anything less than perfectly functional or hamper tourism.

Climate change means water crises like the one facing Cape Town are likely to become a far more common occurrence. The New Delhi based Centre for Science & Environment think tank lists 10 cities that may face similar ‘Day Zero’ type situations in the near future unless drastic water-saving action is taken. They include including Beijing, Mexico City, Nairobi, Karachi and Istanbul.

If Cape Town is to serve as a cautionary tale to these cities, two lessons seem pertinent. First, act early. Cape Town officials were warned of the potential for a crisis as early as 2009. Despite this, water restrictions only came into effect in January 2016. While three water desalination plants are set to become operational this month, these remain a temporary solution, and work on them began far too late. Cities cannot control the climate, but they can prepare for it.

The second lesson is not to shy away from radical measures. Capetonians only started meaningfully saving water when the crisis began to feel like one. The city’s rolling back of measures like the Day Zero countdown simply breeds complacency among a population that needs to be vigilant. Attempting to downplay concerns to protect tourism and look good electorally runs the risk of exacerbating the problem in future.

Cape Town remains on the brink of an unprecedented disaster. Residents can only hope for an exceptionally wet rainy reason. However, with dam levels as low as they are, even this may prove too little too late.

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