Lessons drawn from Cape Town’s Day Zero

Cape Town

When Cape Town revealed it was fast hurtling towards the moment it would become the first city on earth to run out of water earlier this year, it caught the world’s attention.

Initial predictions said the taps in this South African city of four million people should have run dry by April. But despite the odds appearing stacked against it, the dams never fell to 13.5 per cent — the level needed to reach “Day Zero”, which has now been pushed back to next year at the earliest.

The rains have finally arrived, and Cape Town appears to have pulled itself back from the brink — for now. So, what lessons have been learned? Icebergs could be the answer.

At times like this, it is probably always worth thinking outside the box. But when Nick Sloane — a South African salvage captain known for righting the Costa Concordia — announced he could solve the issue by dragging a 100 million tonne iceberg north from the Antarctic, more than a few eyebrows were raised. But, Capt Sloane assured the BBC’s Newsday programme, it is completely possible.

“At any one time there are thousands of icebergs which have broken off drifting around the Southern Ocean,” he said. Cape Town’s deputy mayor Ian Neilson still needs to be convinced though — especially because moving icebergs thousands of miles is not without risk, and definitely not cheap.

And anyway, the city already has its own plans in place to supplement its dams. A plan to drive water 2,500 miles from the Congo River to Cape Town a decade ago is probably not going to happen. Which is good, because that water is also being eyed up as a possible solution to Africa’s vanishing lake.

You can live on 50 litres of water a day The crisis really caught the world’s attention after it was announced citizens would only be allowed to live on 50 litres of water a day.

But Capetonians quickly adapted. Ninety-second showers, unflushed loos and dirty cars are matters of pride in Cape Town homes, while some restaurants have completely shut off their bathroom taps, forcing customers to opt for hand sanitizer instead, and many public swimming pools are empty.

Of course, there are places still boasting perfectly manicured, green lawns. But generally these all come with a sign on the wall declaring — somewhat defensively — “borehole water”, meaning they are not using the mains supply.

The poorest residents already do When Day Zero was first announced, there was a bit of finger-pointing towards the city’s informal settlements, where it was claimed by some that taps ran almost non-stop.

Quite simply, deputy mayor Ian Neilson said this was not true. According to South Africa’s News24, even before the drought, homes in Cape Town’s informal settlements used just 40 litres per day.

It may not be a good idea to tell tourists Day Zero may have been enough to frighten Capetonians into action, but it had an unfortunate side effect: it also scared the tourists.

Cape Town and the wider Western Cape welcome more than 1.6 million international visitors a year — not to mention the 2.1 million South Africans who holiday in the region.

But at the height of the crisis, an informal study of 18 businesses by the province’s tourism agency, Wesgro, found revenue for January and February had fallen by up to 20 per cent year-on-year.

And finally: Prevention is better than cure Cape Town, Nielson admitted, was taken by surprise by the three-year drought which led to the dire warnings.

Cape Town admits it should now be able to build up its own ability to withstand another drought. But more than that, it is hoped people will stick to the changes they have made – albeit eventually in a less draconian way. — BBC

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