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Climate Bellwether? With Cape Town Almost Out of Water, "Day Zero" Looms

In less than three months, residents in South African city could be lining up for rationed water under armed guards. "Is this the new normal?"

Tree trunks stand in the critically low Theewaterskloof Dam in Villiersdorp, South Africa, Jan. 23, 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

Tree trunks stand in the critically low Theewaterskloof Dam in Villiersdorp, South Africa, Jan. 23, 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

For residents of Cape Town, "Day Zero" is getting closer.

That's the day when taps in the drought-stricken coastal South African city are projected run dry, and its residents would be forced to head to police-guarded distribution sites to obtain their daily ration of water.

"Anyone who works in climate change knows that we've given lots of quite doomsday-esque scenarios in the last two decades. This is the first one which I've really seen come true."
—climatologist Simon Gear
The city warned last week that the day was "now likely to happen." And on Monday, the city, citing a drop in dam levels, moved the projected day up from April 22 to April 12. 

"We have reached a point of no return," Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille said last week announcing tightened water restrictions for the city's 4 million residents. Starting Feb. 1, residents face a 50 liter per day limit (13.2 gallons). [For comparison, Americans' daily home use is 88 gallons of water, the EPA says.]

When Day Zero hits, the limit will be 25 liters per day, to be collected at one of 200 water collection points. Agence France-Presse reports: "With about 5,000 families for each water collection point, the police and army are ready to be deployed to prevent unrest in the lines."

USA Today, however, reported that "Each collection point will accommodate around 20,000 people per day."

Cape Town is being described as the first major city in the developed world that would run out of water.

Erik Solheim, head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), tweeted Wednesday of the looming day, "Is this the new normal?"

In a Bloomberg op-ed subtitled "Cape Town offers a grim preview for the rest of the world," columnist Mihir Sharma suggests that it is. "Cape Town's battle to keep its water taps running," Sharma writes, "should also serve as a warning."

Environmental scientist and climatologist Simon Gear told CBC Radio's Anna Maria Tremonti, "Anyone who works in climate change knows that we've given lots of quite doomsday-esque scenarios in the last two decades. This is the first one which I've really seen come true."

"Eventually," writes meteorologist Bob Henson,

the winter rains will arrive, and the reservoirs will most likely be up and running for at least another few months—thus buying some much-needed time to develop other water supply options. The region's water crisis may be far from over, though, especially if the winter rains are once again lackluster.

That's in part because, as climate scientist Peter Johnston told CBS News, Cape Town is forecast to become warmer, and "That increase in temperature is going to increase evaporation. Increased evaporation is going to mean that there is less water that's available for our use."

Henson adds:

Increased development and rising temperatures are going to add to the impacts when drought does occur, regardless of how rainfall evolves in a warming world. If nothing else, Cape Town's predicament reminds us that we ought to bolster our urban water supplies with extra buffers—from beefed-up conservation to back-up sources—as much as possible, and as soon as possible. In a nonstationary climate, past weather performance is no guarantee of future results.

As Cape Town resident Mohammed Allie of the BBC notes, "Without water there cannot be life."

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