[Marxism] Dangerously Low on Water, Cape Town Now Faces ‘Day Zero’

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jan 30 17:27:53 MST 2018

(I never understood the big deal made over peak oil or the strenuous 
attempts to debunk it. For me, the real threat has always been "peak 

NY Times, Jan. 30, 2018
Dangerously Low on Water, Cape Town Now Faces ‘Day Zero’

CAPE TOWN — It sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster. “Day Zero” is coming 
to Cape Town this April. Everyone, be warned.

The government cautions that the Day Zero threat will surpass anything a 
major city has faced since World War II or the Sept. 11 attacks. Talks 
are underway with South Africa’s police because “normal policing will be 
entirely inadequate.” Residents, their nerves increasingly frayed, speak 
in whispers of impending chaos.

The reason for the alarm is simple: The city’s water supply is 
dangerously close to running dry.

If water levels keep falling, Cape Town will declare Day Zero in less 
than three months. Taps in homes and businesses will be turned off until 
the rains come. The city’s four million residents will have to line up 
for water rations at 200 collection points. The city is bracing for the 
impact on public health and social order.

“When Day Zero comes, they’ll have to call in the army,” said Phaldie 
Ranqueste, who was filling his white S.U.V. with big containers of water 
at a natural spring where people waited in a long, anxious line.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way for Cape Town. This city is 
known for its strong environmental policies, including its careful 
management of water in an increasingly dry corner of the world.

But after a three-year drought, considered the worst in over a century, 
South African officials say Cape Town is now at serious risk of becoming 
one of the few major cities in the world to lose piped water to homes 
and most businesses.

Hospitals, schools and other vital institutions will still get water, 
officials say, but the scale of the shut-off will be severe.

Cape Town’s problems embody one of the big dangers of climate change: 
the growing risk of powerful, recurrent droughts. In Africa, a continent 
particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, those problems 
serve as a particularly potent warning to other governments, which 
typically don’t have this city’s resources and have done little to adapt.

For now, political leaders here talk of coming together to “defeat Day 
Zero.” As water levels in the dams supplying the city continue to drop, 
the city is scrambling to finish desalination plants and increase 
groundwater production. Starting in February, residents will face 
harsher fines if they exceed their new daily limit, which will go down 
to 50 liters (13.2 gallons) a day per person from 87 liters now.

Just a couple of years ago, the situation could not have looked more 
different here. In 2014, the dams stood full after years of good rain. 
The following year, C40, a collection of cities focused on climate 
change worldwide, awarded Cape Town its “adaptation implementation” 
prize for its management of water.

Cape Town was described as one of the world’s top “green” cities, and 
the Democratic Alliance — the opposition party that has controlled Cape 
Town since 2006 — took pride in its emphasis on sustainability and the 

The accolades recognized the city’s success in conserving water. Though 
the city’s population had swelled by 30 percent since the early 2000s, 
overall water consumption had remained flat. Many of the new arrivals 
settled in the city’s poor areas, which consume less water, and actually 
helped bring down per capita use.

The city’s water conservation measures — fixing leaks and old pipes; 
installing meters and adjusting tariffs — had a powerful impact. Maybe 
too powerful.

The city conserved so much water that it postponed looking for new sources.

For years, Cape Town had been warned that it needed to increase and 
diversify its water supply. Almost all of its water still comes from six 
dams dependent on rainfall, a risky situation in an arid region with a 
changing climate. The dams, which were full only a few years ago, are 
now down to about 26 percent of capacity, officials say.

Cape Town has grown warmer in recent years and a bit drier over the last 
century, according to Piotr Wolski, a hydrologist at the University of 
Cape Town who has measured average rainfall from the turn of the 20th 
century to the present.

Climate models show that Cape Town is destined to face a drier future, 
with rains becoming more unpredictable in the coming decades. “The drier 
years are expected to be drier than they were, and the wetter years will 
not be as wet,” Mr. Wolski said.

As far back as 2007, South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs warned 
that the city needed to consider increasing its supply with groundwater, 
desalination and other sources, citing the potential impact of climate 

Mike Muller, who served as the department’s director between 1997 and 
2005, said that the city’s water conservation strategy, without finding 
new sources, has been “a major contributor to Cape Town’s troubles.”

“Nature isn’t particularly willing to compromise,” he added. “There will 
be severe droughts. And if you haven’t prepared for it, you’ll get 

Ian Neilson, the deputy mayor, said that new water supplies have been 
part of the city’s plans but “it was not envisaged that it would be 
required so soon.”

Cities elsewhere have faced serious water shortages. Millions of 
Brazilians have endured rationing because of prolonged droughts. 
Brasília, the capital, declared a state of emergency a year ago. Experts 
say the water shortages in Brazil, which have affected more than 800 
municipalities across the country, stem from climate change, the rapid 
expansion of agriculture, bad infrastructure and poor planning.

Here in Cape Town, the water shortages have strained political 
divisions, especially because much of the responsibility for building 
water infrastructure lies with the national government led by the 
African National Congress.

“The national government has dragged its feet,” said David Olivier, who 
studies climate change at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Global 
Change Institute.

The national government controls the water supply to Cape Town, other 
municipalities and the province’s agricultural sector, including the 
large wine industry east of Cape Town. In the first two years of the 
drought, experts say, the national government failed to limit water 
supplies to farmers, intensifying the problem.

But the city made mistakes, too. Last year, instead of focusing on 
“low-hanging fruit” like tapping into local aquifers, the city 
concentrated on building temporary desalination units, said Kevin 
Winter, a water expert at the University of Cape Town’s Future Water 

“It takes a lot of time to build desalination modules, three to five 
years, and at considerable cost,” Mr. Winter said. “They’re even 
costlier to build during a crisis.”

Mr. Neilson, the deputy mayor, acknowledged that “some time was lost.” 
The city, he said, had now “shifted our efforts dramatically.”

The city is stepping up its efforts to cut consumption. With water and 
time running out, Mr. Neilson said he was “acutely aware” of needing to 
scare people into changing their behavior without causing them to panic, 
adding, “I don’t think we quite got that right yet.”

So far, only 55 percent of Cape Town residents have met the target of 87 
liters per day.

Helen Zille, the premier of Western Cape Province, which includes Cape 
Town, wrote in The Daily Maverick last week that she considers a 
shut-off inevitable. The question now, she said, is, “When Day Zero 
arrives, how do we make water accessible and prevent anarchy?”

Cutting back is a difficult message to convey in one of the world’s most 
unequal societies, where access to water reflects Cape Town’s deep 
divisions. In squatter camps, people share communal taps and carry water 
in buckets to their shacks. In other parts of the city, millionaires 
live in mansions with glistening pools.

In vast townships like Mitchells Plain, residents without cars wondered 
how they could even carry water containers home from a collection point.

Faried Cassiem, who works as a cleaner but does not have a car, said his 
wife would have to fetch water for his household of eight.

“There are so many guys just standing around, with no jobs, so I’ll just 
give them two rands to carry the water,” he said, referring to the 
equivalent of about 17 cents.

As Day Zero looms, some were stocking up on water at two natural springs 
in the city. Others were buying cases of water at Makro, a 
warehouse-style store.

In Constantia, a suburb with large houses on gated properties with 
pools, some residents were installing water tanks in their yards.

At one house, Leigh De Decker and Mark Bleloch said they had reduced 
their total water consumption from the city to 20 liters a day, down 
from 500 liters a day before the drought. Instead, they now draw from 
two 10,000-liter tanks of treated well water, and were waiting for two 
additional tanks to be delivered.

Several weeks before Day Zero, their use of city water should come down 
to zero, they said, estimating that it will cost them about $4,200 to 
become completely self-sufficient.

“It allows you to have a certain lifestyle without drawing on resources 
that other people need,” Ms. De Decker said.

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