By Michael Stahl – weather.com
Officials dubbed that date “Day Zero.” To avoid such a catastrophe, the city launched “a very intense campaign that brought people to a point of realizing that, if they don’t step up [and conserve water], they will be finding themselves in severe difficulties, and having to line up for water in places around the city,” says Kevin Winter, a researcher at the University of Cape Town’s research institute Future Water, which focuses on water scarcity in South Africa.
The way the city and its inhabitants handled their water emergency could help develop contingency plans for future Day Zero-like threats in other parts of the world, which experts believe are likely to happen with increasing frequency.
Two months prior to the Cape Town government’s Day Zero announcement, Winter says the city was using some 782 million liters of water per day. Officials were hoping to get the daily usage down to 450 million liters.
On February 1, 2018, they implemented restrictions, limiting residents’ daily water use to 50 liters, or slightly more than 13 gallons, which is roughly enough for a person to take a two-minute shower, flush a toilet once, wash a load of dishes, and do regular drinking, cooking, cleaning and tooth-brushing. (By comparison, the average American uses between 80 and 100 gallons of water per day.) The city banned the use of water from municipal sources for anything outside a resident’s home, like filling up swimming pools and irrigating gardens.
To help citizens learn how to meet or stay under the limit, the city posted a handy water calculator website.
Meanwhile, “non-residential customers,” who oversaw commercial and industrial properties, schools, clubs and other complexes, had to cut their use of the municipal drinking water sources by 45%. All agricultural users had to reduce their water use by 60%, compared to pre-drought numbers. Golf courses and public parks went unwatered.
Despite these restrictions, the people of Cape Town responded with enthusiasm.
“You couldn’t turn anywhere in the city without recognizing a notice board somewhere,” say Winter. “An airplane flying in the air dragging a banner behind it saying, ‘Day Zero is with us,’ [that] sort of thing; electronic signs on the streets and highways, and so on. So literally everyone started to make this a campaign that was wall-to-wall flooded with the realization that we were getting close” to running out of water.
Local businesses reminded customers and employees of the importance of conserving water, some by posting cheeky bathroom signs saying “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” Companies launched “dirty shirt challenges” to see which employee could go the longest without washing their work shirt.
Winter also says citizens were posting photos and videos of themselves on social media showing off how they were able to save water through various recycling methods, home infrastructure alterations, and other means. But they also used social media to point out people who weren’t doing their part to limit water use.
“People not only showed the new technologies that they were putting into their homes, but they sometimes would add a photograph of a neighbor or someone who was wasting water,” says Winter, publicly shaming them in the process.
Together, those efforts made a difference. By February 20, 2018, less than three weeks after the government’s water restrictions were put in place, Cape Town had cut its daily water consumption to less than half the level it was using four years earlier, before the drought began. Officials also pushed Day Zero back into the region’s rainy season, to July 9, 2018.
They weren’t out of the weeds yet, though.
On March 20, 2018, water levels at Cape Town’s major dams were down to just 28.6%, a dip of 1.4% from the week before, so the city was again left with about 103 days of water.
Shortly thereafter, the rain finally came. By the end of June, the region had experienced average rainfall for the first time in four years. In combination with water restrictions, the rain helped dam water levels rise to sustainable heights and officials canceled Day Zero indefinitely.
But the experience was a wakeup call — for Cape Town and the rest of the world.
The Cape Towners’ experience suggests that changing the way people live may be part of the solution, but government leadership is key, too. One of the most significant developments in the municipality’s work to preserve the area’s water supply came in the form of a city government water strategy, published in January 2019.
The document declares, “Our collective relationship with water will change,” and promises safe access to water and sanitation for all citizens, the promotion of “wise water use,” the increased use of regional water supplies, sufficient and reliable water from diverse sources, and new infrastructure that will integrate water recycling into its water system.
Evidence of a shift in policy is already apparent. The city has decentralized its water supply, which Jessica Fell, a fellow researcher at Future Water, says was vital to the water-availability turnaround.
“Up until the drought, Cape Town had an almost exclusive reliance on surface water from large dams, which meant that when there was no rain to fill the dams, the water supply was threatened,” says Fell. She adds that the city “is doing a great job diversifying Cape Town’s water supply to include groundwater, desalination and treated effluent re-use to build resilience into the city. They are also doing wonderful work around water demand management, and making people think about [the] way they use water.”
The city has not exceeded its target usage since November 2018, according to the Cape Town government. Water restrictions remain in place, though they have been loosened. The city’s daily water use is about 588 million liters, sitting significantly below the current 650 million-liter target, which has been bumped up twice since October 2018.
In August 2019, Cape Town officials said reservoirs were at around 80% capacity. Nature has continued to lend a helping hand, with the 2019 rainy season producing well-above-average precipitation rates across the region.
But many believe Cape Town officials still need to do more to prevent the prospect of future water-system failure. An April 2019 report from Quartz revealed critical lapses in coordination and accountability between government agencies tasked with water-supply oversight that led to the water crisis. There have been a number of issues with recently constructed desalination plants, while other water-saving infrastructure plans have had trouble getting funded.
Cape Town officials continue to explore water-saving measures.
In October 2018, government officials served as judges in a water-technology innovation competition. The contest’s winner was LiquidGold, a South African company that produces a waterless bathroom that diverts waste into tanks onsite and then treats it to create byproducts for agricultural use. Company founder Orion Herman says, depending on where and how one is deployed, each unit can save up to 500,000 liters of water per year.
Herman praises Cape Town officials for seeking and implementing change.
“They’re very, very forward thinkers,” he says of the legislators. “They felt the impact of water quite more severely than any other of the provinces in South Africa. So they’ve really taken the initiative with regard to looking into different innovation [and] methodologies, and actually being the early adopters” of new water technologies.
“An undoubted positive from the water crisis is that Cape Town is now a more resilient and innovative city, and the City of Cape Town is excited at the opportunities that are emerging within the water economy,” Lance Greyling, director of trade and investment for Cape Town, who served as a judge in the contest, told ESI Africa.
For now, Cape Town’s water supply crisis has subsided. Whether the government and people there can keep future Day Zeros from happening remains to be seen, but they’ve proven they’re up to the challenge.