Day Zero: that’s the ominous label officials in Cape Town have bestowed on the day that water will run out. A three year drought in the region drained reservoirs faster than expected. They were full at the start of 2014, but estimates from the end of January 2018 show that water levels are now at 26 percent of capacity. When the level drops to 13.5 percent, officials plan to shut off pipes and start controlling water distribution to residents. Cape Town’s residents will receive a daily ration of 25 liters of water—the average American, by contrast, uses fifteen times as much per day. A black market is sure to emerge, but the city’s poorest, who have long been bearing the brunt of this crisis, will probably not be able to afford the exorbitant prices.

cape town nasa
Cape Town’s water reservoirs are drying up. NASA Earth Observatory

When Day Zero will arrive is anyone’s guess. It’s been pushed back several times already, as water conservation efforts have proved successful, according to local news reports—it might not even hit until 2019 if usage remains low.

But while conservation efforts may stave off the inevitable, there’s one thing city planners and water management can’t predict: when it will rain again. Until the drought is over, Cape Town will remain on the brink of an environmental and public health disaster. But the South African city is just one of many localities across the globe to face extreme water shortages in recent years—and one of many more to come. The World Resources Institute recently crunched data on water consumption and projected climate patterns, and predicts that by 2040, most regions in the worldwill be facing some level of water stress, and 33 countries could face “extremely high” stress.

Cape Town is one of the most dire cases we’re seeing today. But across the globe, water troubles are already straining the lives of millions of people.


Disappearing Andean glaciers, increasingly rare rainfalls in the wet season, and a protracted drought dried up most of capital city La Paz’s drinking water in 2017. Mining operations have also had a hand in depleting the scarce resource. The predictions of what could happen in Cape Town have already come true in this city of almost two and a half million. Military-guarded trucks deliver meager rations of water, while contamination and protests wreak havoc on the daily lives of citizens. Conservation, rationing, and limiting industrial usage can only go so far if the rains don’t come soon.


Blame watermelons for last year’s protests in drought-stricken Morocco. The North African nation’s agricultural exports—which mostly cater to out-of-season demands in the European market—make up a significant percentage of its GDP. Farmers had been overusing water resources during what may have been the country’s worst drought in 30 years to continue growing impractical, water-intensive crops, like watermelon. In October 2017, the government shut off water supplies in the rural town of Zagora in response to shortages. It’s a town where residents report that clean drinking water is hard to come by, even when the taps are running, and they quickly took to the streets in protest. While the town got an official apology from the Prime Minister, the government hasn’t done much to mitigate the problem or encourage conservation as the drought lingers on.


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