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Dangerously Low on Water, Cape Town Now Faces ‘Day Zero’; A Warning for California and the American West?

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The Theewaterskloof Dam, the city’s largest, is just 13% full. (AP Photo)

CAPE TOWN — It sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster. “Day Zero” is coming to Cape Town this April. Everyone, be warned.

The government cautions that the Day Zero threat will surpass anything a major city has faced since World War II or the Sept. 11 attacks. Talks are underway with South Africa’s police because “normal policing will be entirely inadequate.” Residents, their nerves increasingly frayed, speak in whispers of impending chaos.

The reason for the alarm is simple: The city’s water supply is dangerously close to running dry.

If water levels keep falling, Cape Town will declare Day Zero in less than three months. Taps in homes and businesses will be turned off until the rains come. The city’s four million residents will have to line up for water rations at 200 collection points. The city is bracing for the impact on public health and social order.

“When Day Zero comes, they’ll have to call in the army,” said Phaldie Ranqueste, who was filling his white S.U.V. with big containers of water at a natural spring where people waited in a long, anxious line.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way for Cape Town. This city is known for its strong environmental policies, including its careful management of water in an increasingly dry corner of the world….

But after a three-year drought, considered the worst in over a century, South African officials say Cape Town is now at serious risk of becoming one of the few major cities in the world to lose piped water to homes and most businesses.

Hospitals, schools and other vital institutions will still get water, officials say, but the scale of the shut-off will be severe.

Cape Town’s problems embody one of the big dangers of climate change: the growing risk of powerful, recurrent droughts. In Africa, a continent particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, those problems serve as a particularly potent warning to other governments, which typically don’t have this city’s resources and have done little to adapt.

the-south-african-weather-service-says-climate-change-is-making-its-historical-models-useless- theeshop dam AP PhotoThe Theewaterskloof Dam, the city’s largest, is just 13% full. (AP Photo)

For now, political leaders here talk of coming together to “defeat Day Zero.” As water levels in the dams supplying the city continue to drop, the city is scrambling to finish desalination plants and increase groundwater production. Starting in February, residents will face harsher fines if they exceed their new daily limit, which will go down to 50 liters (13.2 gallons) a day per person from 87 liters now…

…As far back as 2007, South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs warned that the city needed to consider increasing its supply with groundwater, desalination and other sources, citing the potential impact of climate change. Mike Muller, who served as the department’s director between 1997 and 2005, said that the city’s water conservation strategy, without finding new sources, has been “a major contributor to Cape Town’s troubles.”

“Nature isn’t particularly willing to compromise,” he added. “There will be severe droughts. And if you haven’t prepared for it, you’ll get hammered.” Ian Neilson, the deputy mayor, said that new water supplies have been part of the city’s plans but “it was not envisaged that it would be required so soon.”…

….So far, only 55 percent of Cape Town residents have met the target of 87 liters per day. Helen Zille, the premier of Western Cape Province, which includes Cape Town, wrote in The Daily Maverick last week that she considers a shut-off inevitable. The question now, she said, is, “When Day Zero arrives, how do we make water accessible and prevent anarchy?”

Cutting back is a difficult message to convey in one of the world’s most unequal societies, where access to water reflects Cape Town’s deep divisions. In squatter camps, people share communal taps and carry water in buckets to their shacks. In other parts of the city, millionaires live in mansions with glistening pools….

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