CAPE TOWN – As of February 1, the inhabitants of Cape Town South Africa will only be able to use 50 liters of water per day.
It is one of the new restrictions that will come into force, to try to avoid what is known as ‘Day zero’: the time when for the first time, the taps of a big city in the world could run out of water in the absence of reserves.
If the levels in dams do not improve, the authorities predict that as of April 12,the population will have to go to one of the 200 water distribution points that will be opened in the city to collect a maximum of 25 liters per day.
“They have to save water as if their lives depended on it, because it does depend on it (…) No one should be showering more than twice a week,” said the head of provincial government, Helen Zille, who remains convinced of being able to avoid the emergency.
But how is it possible that the second most populous city in South Africa and one of the main tourist destinations in the world has reached this crisis that its mayor called “point of no return”?
1. The worst drought of the century
The absence of rain continued in time is, without a doubt, one of the main reasons why Cape Town has reached this point.
After several consecutive years with little rainfall in the midst of one of the worst droughts of the century in the region, the levels of the city’s dams plummeted.
In 2014 they were almost full, at the beginning of this year they were at 28% capacity.
The closest hope that the situation could improve would not come until May, when the rainy season begins .
But that may not be enough again, in any case, the crisis would not be solved immediately.
“It will take several months for the dams to start filling, up even a little, and years before they fully recover , “ according to Earther published on the site Christian Alexander, a sustainability and urban planning specialist based in Cape Town
The weather phenomenon “El Niño” is the main responsible for the climatic situation that affects the region, and causes the extreme south of Africa to become one of the driest areas.
2. Increase in population
The main explanation is the continuous increase in the population that Cape Town experienced in recent years.
It is estimated that since 1995 the number of inhabitants grew around 80%, from 2.4 million to the 4.3 million today.
The capital hosts about 65% of the entire population of its province, Western Cape, where projections also estimate that the number of inhabitants will continue to grow in the coming decades.
More and more visitors have also turned Cape Town into one of the main tourist destinations in Africa.
Part of the local population questioned that the tourists were not going to contribute to saving water consumption, even though the city wants them to follow the same measures and recommendations.
Despite everything, the truth is that international tourists account for only 1% of the population of Cape Town in high season , according to the provincial tourism promotion agency Wesgro,
3. Shortage of alternative sources
Faced with this increase in water demand by a population that almost doubled in two decades, the infrastructures and the provision of alternative sources in the area do not seem to have advanced at the same speed.
It is true that important works were carried out, such as the inauguration in 2009 of the Berg River Dam, which contributes almost 20% of the capacity of the local water supply network. The walls of other dams were raised to increase their capacity.
The authorities started other alternative projects such as desalination plants to make the sea water in Cape Town drinkable . They also opted for water recycling systems or groundwater extraction systems.
But most of these projects are still 50% under construction, so many accuse the government of not having acted with sufficient foresight to deal with this crisis in an area previously affected by other droughts.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in South Africa, the use of the aquifers that abound in the area can be key at this critical time.
“Life after ‘Day zero’ will present exceptional circumstances, and we hope that emergency regulations will be established to allow using and sharing groundwater with neighbors.” he said in a statement.
According to WWF, in Cape Town there are 22,000 registered drilling operations that are managed privately.
However, free access to this groundwater would not to be a solution, since it can not be used for human consumption without prior analysis and treatment.
4. Lack of awareness
Although water consumption among the general population has declined in recent weeks, part of the population is reluctant to comply with government-imposed savings measures.
According to the latest data, only 40% of the population limits their water consumption to the currently recommended 87 liters per day.
And these figures do not give good prospects for the new limit of 50 liters a day that comes into force on February 1.
Before the crisis, the residents of the city used between 250 and 350 liters a day, according to Dr. Kevin Winter, of the Future Water Institute of the University of Cape Town.
The great differences in the amount of consumption between zones are also a reflection of the existing inequalities in the city.
“The informal and impoverished settlements, which make up the majority of the population, use less than 5% of the total municipal water,” according to sustainability expert Christian Alexander.
Consumption rates are disproportionately higher in wealthier, lower-density neighborhoods with many dwellings inhabited by a single person.
It will be these sectors of the population that will most notice the restrictions as of April 12.
For the poorest areas of the periphery, where a large part of the immigration coming from nearby countries is concentrated, the ‘Day zero’ of water consumption is already a reality, for many years.