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South Africa Cape Town Drought

A Cape Town resident unveils what it's like to live in a city that will run out of water

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No major city in the world has ever run out of water, but that may soon change.

April 21, 2018, also known as "Day Zero," is on the minds of many South Africans. It's when the city of Cape Town will switch off the public's access to water in the midst of the worst drought the town has faced in nearly a century. That means that the some four million residents will have to stand in line at one of 200 water sheds to collect their allocated 25 liters of water, translating to about 20,000 people per shed.

"A lot of people are starting to get very anxious. Now that they've started to cut the water down and talking about 'Day Zero' being imminent, there's a lot of anxiousness or anxiety going on with social media."
Tim Flack, South African resident

So many residents like Flack describe a dire scenario. Most of them haven't seen substantial rain in about three years. In an effort to respond to the water crisis, the government began taking small steps to conserve water usage, but Flack says they weren't enough to prevent "Day Zero" from occurring.

Currently, Capetonians are encouraged to survive on 50 liters of water or less per day, per household. So imagine limiting your consumption to this: one 90-second shower, one toilet flush, two liters of drinking water, four liters for cooking, and 18 liters for doing the dishes.

As a result, Flack and his partner ensure to save every droplet of water. Dirty runoff water from the shower is used to flush the toilet, and dirty dishes are only washed about every two days.

And don't even think about watering your plants, the former military official turned bladesmith said.

For every measure that Flack and his partner take to conserve as much water as possible, there are more Cape Town residents who don't seem as concerned about what the city's mayor described as a "point of no return."

According to a recent data, 60 percent of residents aren't conserving water--even using more than the allocated 50 liters per day. Flack says the city of Cape Town isn't doing enough to hold those accountable.

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He continued, "If you break the rules, it's a slap on the wrist. No one's been arrested. No one's been fined $50,000 for over using water or anything like that. If you want to bathe, you can bathe. If you want to waste water, you can waste water. There's no legislation in place to curb that either."

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In the United States, it might be difficult to understand how water consumption is measured, since there's not system in place to do so. But in South Africa, houses are equipped with their own water meters, which makes it relatively easy to measure consumption. A handful of officials check the water levels and submit them for review, Flack explained. At first, in an effort to humiliate those who used a lot of water, the government began publishing their names in the newspaper--to defame them.

"Now you're creating other instances where people's lives can be in danger," Flack added.

The government has since adjusted how it approaches the water crisis. They've launched a large public relations campaign to urge residents to conserve water, but, in practicality, Flack said it's not enough. He argued that measures such as these should have been taken months ago if there was any realistic possibility of avoiding "Day Zero."

"I think it's too late now. The step's that they're taking now, they should have taken last year in January in order to avoid this because it's not inevitable. The water is going to be finished. There are going to be diseases and stuff starting to spread."
Tim Flack

Compounding the problem, Flack continued, is politics. In December, Cape Town mayor Patricia De Lille was temporarily suspended following allegations of mismanagement and corruption. The scandal, according to some residents, is preventing her from fully committing to resolving the crisis.

It may be too late for Cape Town to avoid "Day Zero," but Flack said it's equally as important for the international community to collectively evaluate similar issues in the wake of climate change to hopefully avoid prevent another city from going dry.

"There's something happening with the climate and people need to be aware of it. And people might think this isn't Cape Town in South Africa, it's far away from me, I'm sitting in Nebraska or whatever. It could shift over to where you are. It could shift over to Australia. Anywhere in the world," he said.

Circa reached out to the City of Cape Town for a response, but didn't hear back by the time of publication.

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