08 Dec

Will Cape Town Run Out of Water?

If “Day Zero” comes, the 4 million residents of South Africa’s second-biggest city will face a catastrophe.

Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille says she has a new reason to hate Mondays.

That’s when she gets weekly reports on levels in the dams that supply South Africa’s second-biggest city, and on how much water its 4 million residents are using. The numbers regularly show that “Day Zero”—when most taps could stop running—will probably arrive in May, a month or two before the onset of the winter rains.

“We have to change our relationship with water,” said De Lille, who has filled in her swimming pool and stopped washing her car. She spends 70 percent of her working day dealing with the crisis. “We have to plan for being permanently in a drought-stricken area,” she said in in her office on the sixth floor of the Cape Town civic center.

Cape Town, whose lush, stunning setting induced explorer Francis Drake in 1580 to call it “the most stately thing and the fairest cape we ever saw,” risks running dry. The severity of the crisis, brought on by three years of poor rains and surging water demand, is highly unusual even at a time of climate extremes, said Bob Scholes, a professor of systems ecology at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

“Running out of water in places that have a highly developed water infrastructure is not that common,”  he said. “I know of no example of a city the size of Cape Town running out of water. It would be quite catastrophic.”

The water shortage has become staple dinner-table and radio talk show conversation, and a Facebook group on how to save water and prepare for outages has drawn more than 121,000 followers. Rainwater-tank suppliers and borehole companies are doing a roaring trade as those residents who can pay seek to reduce their reliance on the municipal grid.

Massmart Ltd.’s building supply chain Builders Warehouse, which sells the tanks, and driller De Wets Water & Boreholes both have waiting lists of at least six months.

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