Day Zero

Staring out the window at the wintery goodness left behind by the aptly named “Beast from the East,” and writing about a drought in South Africa is as contradictory as it gets. But I’m not about to wait around for a sunny day on the West Coast of Scotland, so here goes.

I confess my water footprint is something I’ve never really sat down to think about, you’d be hard pushed to find someone further away from the situation in Cape Town than me. Which probably explains why I find it so difficult to imagine exactly what I would do on the day they switch off the taps. I don’t claim to be an expert on droughts, but I do feel that what Capetonians have managed to achieve amidst their water crisis is pretty incredible.

A couple of weeks ago headlines were predicting that on the 9th of July the taps were going to run dry in Cape Town. The event that’s now been dubbed “Day Zero” would make Cape Town one of the first major cities to have their fresh water run out.

Capetonians have had their water usage capped at 50 litres per day for a while now. I will admit my initial ignorance when I first read about these limits. I foolishly thought no matter how much coffee I need to get me out of bed in the morning there is absolutely no way I could come close to that level of water usage. It’s safe to say I was well off:

Your typical shower uses about 15 litres of water per minute, so those ten minute showers spent practising your favourite Tina Turner tunes eat-up three times your daily limit. Not to mention your average 15 litre toilet flush. The saying in Cape Town now goes “if its yellow let it mellow. If its brown flush it down…”

Image taken from:

Image taken from:

The incredible news is that Capetonians have not only managed to push Day Zero back, but they may have actually prevented Day Zero from happening (if they continue their current level of consumption.) The community has achieved this simply by working together to save water. Local farmers have released water from their private reservoirs into a publicly accessible storage dam; residents are limiting their usage and recycling their shower water where possible; and decision makers are looking into long term solutions for topping-up the city’s water levels, such as desalination, water recycling and (on a shadier note) naming and shaming the biggest water wasters.

Notably, local artists such as 'Desmond and the Tutus' started a campaign to raise awareness through their 2minuteshowersongs website. Cutting their tracks down to two minutes and making them free to download, so you know exactly when your times up. Turns out you don’t have to do without your vocal warm ups...

However, as much as Capetonians have potentially prevented Day Zero from happening this year, they are still teetering awfully close to the edge of crisis. It’s looking likely that the city won’t be able to rely solely on its surface water reserves in future.

Cape Town is not alone. Water shortages have been a concern to many major cities for years, yet there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of awareness about the consequences of water usage.

Just as the irony is not lost on the coastal city of Cape Town it certainly won’t be lost on the rain soaked Brits. London’s supply problems are predicted to hit the city as early as 2025, with serious shortages by 2040. Not to forget that much of our food is currently imported from areas of high water stress. My coffee addiction alone leaves me with an 840 litre footprint on the water crisis every day.

Although Captonians may not have stopped Day Zero forever, they have avoided it for now. Cape Town has shown the world what can be achieved if communities work together to tackle big problems. Individuals doing their own little bit in their daily routine makes a huge difference. But we need to listen to the initial warning bells. It shouldn’t really take a looming crisis for us to finally take our planet seriously. We can only hope Toto’s blessed rains burst into action soon.