Tue, Feb 06, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Cape Town faces Day Zero: What happens when the city turns off the taps?

Engineers might have to turn off water for 1 million homes as this South African city reacts to a one-in-384-year drought

By Jonathan Watts  /  The Guardian, CAPE TOWN

Illustration: Yusha

The head of Cape Town’s disaster operations center is drawing up a plan that he hopes he never has to implement as this South African city on the front line of climate change prepares to be the first in the world to turn off the water taps.

“We’ve identified four risks: water shortages, sanitation failures, disease outbreaks and anarchy due to competition for scarce resources,” Greg Pillay said. “We had to go back to the drawing board. We were prepared for disruption of supply, but not a no-water scenario. In my 40 years in emergency services, this is the biggest crisis.”

The plan — being drawn up with the emergency services, the military, epidemiologists and other health experts — is geared toward Day Zero, the apocalyptically named point when water in the six-dam reservoir system falls to 13.5 percent of capacity.

At this critical level — currently forecast for April 16 — piped supply will be deemed to have failed and the city is to dispatch teams of engineers to close the valves to about 1 million homes — 75 percent of the city.

“It’s going to be terrifying for many people when they turn on the tap and nothing comes out,” said Christine Colvin, freshwater manager for WWF and a member of the mayor’s advisory board.

In place of piped water, the city is to establish 200 water collection points, scattered around the city to ensure the legally guaranteed minimum of 25 liters per person per day within 200m of every citizen’s home.

This will be a major burden on municipal coffers. The estimated cost of installing and running the new system for three months is 200 million rands (US$16.57 million). Instead of selling water, it is to be given away for free, which will mean 1.4 billion rands in lost revenue.

“The total city budget is 40 billion rands, so this won’t destroy us, but it will cause severe discomfort,” Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson said, adding that he has not had a bath at home for a year.

“A bigger concern is to ensure that the economy doesn’t collapse,” Neilson said. “We need to keep business and jobs going... Clearly, there could be a severe impact. It depends on how long it continues.”

Neilson stresses that Day Zero can be avoided. A lowering of pipe pressure and a public information campaign to conserve water have cut the city’s daily water consumption from 1,200 million liters to 540 million liters. If this can be pushed down another 25 percent, the taps should stay open to the start of the rainy season in May.

However, this is no guarantee. Three consecutive years of drought have made a mockery of normal seasonal patterns.

“We’re in a critical transition period where the past is no longer an accurate guide to the future,” Colvin said.

She illustrates her point with two maps. One — based on historical data — shows that the water risk of Cape Town is green, meaning that it is among the lowest in South Africa. The other — based on future climate projections — is almost the complete opposite, with the city located in the middle of an alarming red heat zone.

“What we don’t know is when that future will arrive,” Colvin said. “Businesses and investors have heard the long-term projections, but they haven’t heard the starting gun go off. If this drought can pull the trigger, then that could be a good thing. If this is seen as a pressure test for the new normal, it will help us to adapt.”

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