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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Cape Town braces for 'Day Zero' as water runs out

South African metropolis will become the first modern city to run dry - an event now predicted to occur on April 12

Residents queue to fill containers with water from a source of natural spring water in Cape Town, South Africa. Bram Janssen/AP
Residents queue to fill containers with water from a source of natural spring water in Cape Town, South Africa. Bram Janssen/AP

"Day Zero" has the ring of the apocalypse about it, but for Cape Town residents it is not zombie hordes that they fear, but rather the inevitable moment when the entire city’s taps run dry within a matter of weeks.

The South African metropolis will become the first modern city to run out of water and, as Day Zero approaches, the city's inhabitants are scrambling to figure out what to do when the moment arrives. One thing everybody agrees on – it is now inevitable.

"Day zero is fast-approaching in Cape Town - it is now predicted to occur on April 12,” Lana Mazahreh, the project leader at Boston Consulting Group in Cape Town, tells The National. Ms Mazahreh, originally from Jordan, is a water expert whose career has included time in the Middle East and Abu Dhabi in particular.

In the Cape Town region, dam averages have dropped to about 27 per cent of their regular levels. The Cape is a winter rainfall area and with a hot summer in full swing there is little hope of relief from the sky. The last good rains were recorded in 2015. Now, with three exceptionally dry seasons behind them, the dams that supply 3.7 million people with water are almost depleted.

When the main supply dam, Theewaterskloof, reaches around 15 per cent, pumps will be turned off to protect the remaining resource and to avoid pumping mud and sludge into the system. Theewaterskloof Dam provides about 40 per cent of Cape Town's water, with a capacity of 480 million cubic metres.

City and state authorities are appealing for people to stay within a limit of 50 litres a day to put off Day Zero for as long as possible, a target that can be reached says Ms Mazahreh. The total city target is to limit use to 450 million litres a day, against a regular consumption of more than 1.2 billion litres used daily in normal times.

"With 50 litres of water, I can shower for two minutes, brush my teeth twice, wash my hands three times, cook one meal and wash the dishes, flush the toilet once and drink two litres of water," points out Ms Mazahreh.

However, estimates are that less than 40 per cent of residents are sticking to the target, she notes. "We can only make progress if all residents take this crisis seriously and take action. I think we can all agree that these steps are preferable to Cape Town shutting off the taps in two months."

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The impending water shortage is already visible in one of the city's most important industries – tourism. Most hotels have shut their swimming pools, since refilling them is now banned. More than two million visitors descend on the city each year.

One of Cape Town's largest events, the Mining Indaba, which bills itself as the world's largest mineral resource investment conference and which is now underway, considered moving the event to another location this year. "After a lot of consideration we decided to keep it here in Cape Town," says the event managing director Alex Grose. Almost 20,000 bankers, mining executives and industry players fill up hotels for the week of the event.

Mr Grose says event managers had tried to reduce the effect of the conference, which is vital to the city's hospitality industry, on water supplies. Delegates were warned of the crisis and practical steps such as cutting down on beverages including coffee and tea were implemented, while the bottled water usually available was imported from beyond the city environs. The conference organisers are also buying untreated water from the city and purifying it for delegates' needs.

In reality, these are token efforts to alleviate pressure on local water resources - the big picture outlook remains grim. "Make no mistake, this remains a city in trouble," Mr Grose says.

City and provincial authorities are working to set up emergency points where residents can pick up 25 litres per person once Day Zero arrives. Desalination plants are frantically being constructed and boreholes drilled to supplement dwindling supply.

Meanwhile, cajoling residents to using less water is the strategy of the day. The colourful premier of the Cape Province, Helen Zille, shared a Tweet showing her feet in a bowl of water, exhorting residents to wash in basins rather than shower or bath.

"This is me standing in my skottel [dish] to wash," Ms Zille tweeted, to the accompanying image of her toes dipped in a thin layer of water. "It's amazing how little water one actually needs for a good scrub. The water is cold because waiting for warm wastes too much."

Ms Zille was unsurprisingly roasted on Twitter by many unhappy residents, but she defended her administration's handling of the crisis. She blamed the political climate as well as the lack of rain for the water shortage.

Both Cape Town and the Western Cape Province in which it lies are controlled by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), despite all the efforts of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to win them back.

Bulk water management is the purvey of government, with the province and city ultimately customers rather than providers.

Ms Zille has accused the national government of dragging its feet in on the matter, to make the DA look bad and further the ANC's chances in future provincial and city elections. For several years now provincial and city authorities have been lobbying for the Western Cape to be declared a disaster area to free up funds for additional water resources.

Meanwhile, the country's president-in-waiting Cyril Ramaphosa has pledged full support for the crisis-hit city. Speaking in Davos, Switzerland recently, he told reporters all resources would be made available to Cape Town.

“I am going back home and I am going to corral as many people as possible to put our heads together and see exactly what we should be doing‚ not only in the immediate term but also in the long term," he said.

In the meantime, Cape Town will probably just have to go thirsty.