Cape Town has basked in a string of ‘Best City’ accolades in recent years, but we’re about to become known for something else — the first major city in the world to run out of water. Day Zero, the day the taps are turned off, has been brought forward to 12 April.
Predictably in times of heightened stress and anxiety, there’s been much finger pointing as we scramble to apportion blame. Rumours are swirling that the City was forewarned about this likelihood years ago and failed to act. There’s anger over the City’s unwillingness (inability?) to tap into other water sources (desalination and aquifers) and squabbling over what the different statistics mean (is it the worst drought in 100 years?).
At first it felt like we might be plunged into something resembling a dystopian novel, but with Day Zero looming, we’re getting proactive. Stinky loos, parched lawns and empty pools aside, Capetonians are devising novel ways to stick to the allocated 50 litres a day. Those with the resources are rigging up boreholes and going off grid (though there’s much uncertainty about the legality of this), enhancing their grey water systems, buying machines that make water out of air, and stockpiling boxes of 5l water bottles. There’s been this been-there-done-that post giving us some much needed perspective (it’s okay, we’ll survive, we’ll come out stronger).
Because of course we’re not the first city to be severely water stressed. California has been in a ‘mega-drought’ for years and Australia had its own ‘Millenial Drought’ in the early 2000’s. Droughts are becoming so frequent it’s predicted the next World War will be fought over water.
What sets us apart, as always, are the disparities. It’s a bleak prospect, queuing for water, wearing dirty clothes, being unwashed. But there’s this thing that happens in South Africa, which is that most of the time we’re ostriches, but in times of crisis we’re reminded how the majority of the population live. When the rug is pulled out from under us, and our creature comforts are threatened, we remember just how fortunate we are. An estate dweller in my nice car, plotting how we’ll leave the city if things go belly up, I’m as guilty of sealing myself off from the realities of life in South Africa as the next person.
Let’s hope this becomes reminiscent of load shedding, where we retrofitted our homes, but then just as quickly Eskom turned the lights back on. Perhaps the soothsayers are right, and we will see flooding in March. We may just scrape through and avoid Day Zero, but our attitudes to water will have been irrevocably changed. And absolute worst case for most of us reading this — rather than it being some vague notion out there, we will actually have to live the knowledge of what it’s like to be without water, and perhaps there are blessings in that.