Cape Town’s “Day Zero” Water Shutdown Could Be A Postcard From A Climate Future

Image result for cape town reservoirCape Town, South Africa, a city of about 4 million people, is just three months away from having to shut down their water supply for residents, barring rain between now and then. Residents will then have to line up at 200 sites around the city to pick up a ration of 6 gallons of water per day per person.

How did this major city, which ironically won an international award for water conservation at the Paris UN climate talks in 2015, end up in this situation? Climate change-induced drought, a growing population, and poor planning are the major culprits. As Warren Tenney from Arizona Municipal Water Users Association explained:

Cape Town’s reservoirs are drying up. There is no precedent in their records for three consecutive years this dry. The extreme drought is compounded by a 79 percent growth in population since 1995, while water storage capacity increased only 15 percent. Plans for developing new water supplies, including a desalination plant, are behind schedule. Steps were not taken early enough to head off this slow-moving disaster. Cape Town is now trying to catch up by lowering water pressure in its distribution system and investing in a far-reaching public information campaign to conserve water. These actions have helped to cut the city’s daily water consumption by 45 percent. If Cape Town can reduce consumption yet another 25 percent, they may make it to the rainy season that is supposed to begin in May – if the drought eases and it rains.

Cape Town’s situation should be particularly alarming for California and other parts of the American West that only get rain during winter seasons. Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate like California with long dry spells, plus a similar agricultural industry. Climate change is already contributing to major droughts on the West Coast, and our growing population could one day face Day Zero conditions as well.

What can be done? The obvious step is to encourage as much water conservation as possible, and use recycled wastewater as much as possible as well. Secondarily, we need to be smarter about our groundwater usage and ensure that we leave enough groundwater in our aquifers as possible (California’s 2014 groundwater legislation is for the first time spurring needed management of this resource here). And finally, we’ll need to explore options to boost supplies through desalination. But this costly and potentially polluting step should be a last resort, after conservation and recycling measures (my Berkeley Law colleague Mike Kiparsky is featured in this Wired article explaining the drawbacks of desalination).

These steps may help other jurisdictions avoid a Day Zero scenario — but for how long? As climate change takes us into unprecedented weather changes, even these actions may not be enough. But that’s no excuse for not trying or not planning.