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

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.

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The Theewaterskloof Dam, source of roughly half of Cape Town’s water, is at just 13 percent of capacity. Credit NASA

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 environment.

The accolades recognized the city’s undeniable 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.

But 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.

Source: NYT > World

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