If Cape Town gets to “Day Zero,” it will be the first major city in the world forced to cut off the vast majority of its taps.
In 2015, however, a serious drought in Brazil forced San Paolo to reduce its water delivery to some residents to just twice a week. When rains finally arrived, San Paolo was less than a month away from its own Day Zero. Many other global cities, such as Mexico City, face long-term water shortages that limit water deliveries to only a few hours each week.
While no major California cities ran out of water during the recent drought, some smaller, rural towns that were reliant solely on groundwater did. As the drought intensified, for example, farmers in the Central Valley pumped more and more groundwater to irrigate their crops.
This increased pumping lowered groundwater tables. Cities with shallow wells found their wells go dry. For example, the wells in East Porterville, a small town near Bakersfield, went dry in 2014, forcing the state to truck bottled water to city residents and forcing residents to go without showers and use grey water to flush toilets. East Porterville did not regain water until late 2016 when the neighboring town of Porterville extended its water supply system to those otherwise left high and dry.
No one is sure what will happen in Cape Town on Day Zero, except that the city will shut off most people’s taps. Local residents will then be able to pick up 6.6 gallons of water per day at one of 200 distribution sites that the city is setting up. (By comparison, the typical bathtub holds about 20 gallons of water. The average American uses 80-100 gallons per day.)
If Cape Town is successful, it will have pulled off an amazing administrative feat. One observer has estimated that each site will need to dispense water to people at the amazing clip of eight households per hour for 12 hours every day.
It also is not clear how successful the city will be at providing water to the elderly and the poor who may not be able to travel readily to the distribution sites. Some observers also have expressed concern about the risk of violence as hundreds of thousands of people descend on each site for their water supplies. To avoid violence, police and military will protect the distribution sites.
Despite these risks, however, I am fairly optimistic that the city will be able to meet people’s basic water needs. Historically, droughts have encouraged cooperation among local populations. The city, moreover, plans to keep water flowing to key facilities, like schools and hospitals, and to communal taps in the city’s impoverished townships (where a lack of water might lead to disease outbreaks). Richer residents of Cape Town are also arranging to have water delivered to their homes by trucks.
The largest impact on Cape Town is likely to be on its economy. All sectors of the economy rely on water. Cape Town, moreover, is heavily reliant on tourism, and the number of visitors already is declining in anticipation of water shutoffs. Stanford even has cancelled the spring quarter of its Bing Overseas Study Program because of Cape Town’s ongoing water crisis.
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