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'Day Zero' Approaches as South African City Runs Out of Water

Cape Town, South Africa

South Africa's city of Cape Town is rapidly approaching what the mayor calls "day zero" — the day the seaside metropolis of four million residents will have to shut off the taps because it has run out of water amid years of drought. This week, the mayor moved the date up by a week, to April 22.

But it is not the only deadline faced by embattled Cape Town mayor Patricia De Lille. In South Africa's increasingly politicized climate, the water saga has also taken on political tones, with the mayor's warnings being overshadowed by allegations of misconduct. Her party will meet this weekend to decide whether to take action against her.

Day Zero, De Lille acknowledges, sounds like a Hollywood plot point. But the reality behind it is scary.

Three-year drought

The beautiful, beach-lined port city has suffered drought for three consecutive years, an unprecedented event. For months, the city has imposed strict controls on its water supply, which depends almost entirely on reservoirs sitting behind dams.

Capetonians have been banned from washing their cars, watering their lawns or filling their pools with municipal water, and have been encouraged to keep showers under two minutes and only flush the toilet "when absolutely necessary."

The latest set of restrictions, imposed January 1, slashed each household's monthly allowance from 20,000 liters per month to 10,500 liters, with a threat that violators will get special meters that will shut down beyond that point.

The restrictions will get even more harsh on April 22, or Day Zero, as De Lille explained on national radio this week.

"We will reach Day Zero when the dam levels go down to 13.5 percent," she said. "Then at that point, we will turn off most of the taps. We will not turn off the taps, we will reduce the pressure, in poorer areas like informal settlements. But we will turn off the taps and then at about approximately 200 sites across the city, people will have to go collect water from there. And when you collect your water from there, you will only receive 25 liters per person per day."

Blame it on the rain?

But critics of the mayor and her party say it's unfair to blame it all on the rain — or rather, the lack of it. De Lille is a member of the opposition Democratic Alliance party, which has long ruled the wealthy Western Cape province. She has recently come under fire for unrelated allegations of misconduct and corruption, which are prompting calls both inside and outside of her party for her dismissal.

Khaya Magaxa, acting leader of the ruling African National Congress in the province, said the DA's record of mismanagement is partly to blame for this water crisis.

"This problem has been exacerbated by the poor management on the DA side, both in the provincial government and in the municipality," he told VOA.

He said this was raised more than five years ago when a serious drought was underway in the western cape due to natural causes, including global warming.

But he said the "DA failed to execute mechanisms" to restrict the use of water and manage the process promptly, to the extent that "we are now reacting in a crisis that is already over our head."

Civil society groups like the South African Water Caucus say water allocation is the responsibility of the national government. They blame the ANC-led national government for failing to release enough drought funding because of mismanagement and corruption at the national level.

No water, no solution

Hydrologist Piotr Wolski of the University of Cape Town's Climate Systems Analysis Group has run mathematical analyses of the drought and the water supply. He believes Cape Town' engineers and administrators would have struggled to design a water system that could have held up to such a severe challenge.

"Water supply systems are usually designed with an assurance rate of 97 percent, which means that in worst case they may fail only 3 percent of the time," he wrote in his recent analysis. "The conditions we experience now seem to be well beyond what one usually plans for."

Mayor De Lille said she remains optimistic. She said if Capetonians can stick to the limits, they can push Day Zero back.

But her own Day Zero may come sooner still. As De Lille's party meets this weekend to decide whether to take action against her, a political storm hovers over what South Africans affectionately call the Mother City. But it is not the storm Cape Town so badly needs right now.


Quote of the Day:
“Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man's self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.”


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