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Day zero looms as Cape Town scrambles to tackle water crisis

Taps to be turned off on April 12 unless consumption drops.
Cape Town stores sell out of rain tanks and buckets as residents make plans to stockpile water. Picture: Bloomberg

With less than 80 days to go until “Day Zero,” when chronic water shortages may force Cape Town authorities to turn off the taps, officials are scrambling to persuade the city’s four million residents to slash consumption and put emergency plans in place should the supply be cut off.

Africa’s top tourist destination is in the throes of the worst drought on record, and water levels in its six main supply dams have plummeted to an average of 27.2%, from more than 90% four years ago. With the winter rainy season still about four months away, residents may find themselves lining up for a daily allocation of 25 liters (6.6 gallons) each from April 12 unless water usage declines sharply.

“We all now know that Day Zero is a real possibility,” Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, which runs Cape Town and the surrounding Western Cape province, said Wednesday at a rally in the city where he unveiled a water-saving campaign. “This is a very frightening reality. There is no silver bullet. The only way to defeat Day Zero is to use less water.”

While the city has told residents to use no more than 87 liters of water a day each, less than half of households have complied. The daily allocation will be cut to 50 liters on February 1, and hefty surcharges will be introduced for those who exceed their quotas.

Capetonians are bracing themselves for the worst. Many stores have sold out of rain tanks, buckets and other containers as residents make plans to stockpile water, and well-drilling companies are doing a roaring trade. 

Plans to augment the water supply include the construction of three small desalination plants, bringing in desalination barges to the harbour and tapping underground aquifers. But they wouldn’t be enough to cover the shortfall in supply. A large-scale desalination plant could cost as much as R15 billion  ($1.3 billion), money the city doesn’t have, Maimane said.

“Finger-pointing doesn’t help,” said Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, who is overseeing the disaster management plans that will be implemented should Day Zero arrive. “We have to save water as if our lives depend on it, because they do.”

The city doesn’t plan to cut off the water supply to poor townships, hospitals, schools and the central business district. It hasn’t revealed how it will manage the allocation of water at the 200 collection points or what logistical arrangements will be made to help those without cars to transport it home.

Contingency plans

Maimane said the authorities will hold weekly briefings about their contingency plans.

Talks are under way with the South African National Defence Force about storing water at military bases and with the police about ensuring security is in place should the taps run dry, because normal law enforcement would be inadequate, Zille said.

While no rain is forecast over Cape Town for the next seven days, some light showers are expected over the Theewaterskloof dam, the Western Cape’s biggest reservoir, according to the South African weather Service.

Ian Nielson, Cape Town’s deputy mayor, said drought and water shortages may be a recurrent event in the city and residents will have to get used to cutting back on their consumption.

“We do seriously suspect this is the new normal, that there has been a change in the climate,” he said. “Without rain and without significant additional supply measures, we will not survive.”

© 2018 Bloomberg 

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Build water desalination plants and tax locals to build it. At R15bn this is R3750 cost per resident of 4m. At a 5-year payback period it would equate to R62 per resident per month for 5 years. If only 25% of the population can pay for it, it’s a surcharge of 250 per month, not unaffordable either. Even cheaper if the city borrows from the banks and with a longer time frame for payback.

Don’t see why this is even a discussion. The alternative is death (political for the DA, as opposed to physical, I’m not that melodramatic).

@ jblack. Am with you on this one 🙂

I disagree with Mr Maimane’s notion that the “City cannot afford R15bn”. Plus the fact that ALL it comes down is only to “save water”, but no augmentation of supply?!
As we all know with population-income matrix (80/20 principle) a minority usually carry most of burden, but still….calculations aside…let’s say it will cost a (once-off) commitment from middle & upper income households say R10K or R20K….I think people will be ‘happy’ (under the circumstances) to pay it, as the alternative is UNTHINKABLE: the whole WC/CT economy may come to a standstill. Businesses temp close & no salaries paid for a month or two, until rains come mid-winter.

Three methods to augment: (i) drilling (already being done, mostly private) (ii) AWG-systems placed (on an industrial scale) in moist areas like high up in mountain peaks/catchment zones, to be more effective, and downpipes leading into dams. Electricity intensive yes, but WHAT is the real cost of not having water?? Those typical clouds frequently seen around mountain tops on some overcast days, are not only there to admire. There’s TONS of water in clouds. (We need to think BIG people!). (iii) salt water desalination: high upfront cost & construction lead-time, but see it as a long-term “insurance policy” for the region/city.
(Yes, should sufficient rain fall next winter, or a few years of wet spells…the city may later argue, now that we have enough rainwater, the desalination plants are shut-down for cost-operating reasons….will be called a “white elephant”. But I see it as an insurance policy….in case an accident happens…and the WC is a car attempting to run a red light in peak hour traffic. What if another year (God forbid) of another below-ave winter rainfall?

I’d rather cough up and pay R20+K instead of facing complete financial ruin. See it as a “special levy” like in a residential complex. Or CoCT can issue a special Bond for local/foreign investors to finance project.

End of comments.

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