Cape Town: How do you stop 4 million people from running out of water?
Jay Goyal
February 5, 2018

On May 11, 2018, Cape Town, South Africa is expected to stop providing water through its pipes. Four million people will be without easy access to water. This doomsday scenario is being called “Day Zero.”

How did this happen?

The reservoir of the largest dam in Cape Town is almost completely dry.

In 2015 and 2016, the city suffered through a bad drought. The amount of water in Cape Town’s six reservoirs steadily decreased, but meteorologists predicted that rains would come back in the winter of 2017. The prediction seemed reasonable; no drought over the last century had ever lasted that long. Although concerned, city officials thought they would be able to manage with the water they had.

But the rain never came. By May of 2017, the government recognized that the drought would have severe consequences. The idea of running out of water no longer felt far-fetched.

How is the city battling the water shortage?

To solve the problem, the government began investing in new projects to get more water: desalination plants (where salt is removed from ocean water), a water recycling center, and groundwater extraction. These projects were expected to be completed before any major crisis would occur.

However, the projects moved slowly and the drought persisted. Water in the city’s reservoirs kept declining to lower and lower levels. The government feared the worst; it was a race to complete the projects before the city ran out of water.

To win that race, there was only one solution: reduce people’s water usage. If everyone reduced their water use, Cape Town might buy enough time until the projects were completed and more rain came. To avert Day Zero, the mayor desperately needed the city’s residents to help. The residents were told to limit their consumption of water to 23 gallons per person per day. That’s about how much water fills a bathtub. In comparison, the average person in the United States consumes four times as much.

Sadly, less than half of Cape Town’s residents followed the guidelines. The government showed its frustration: “It is quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards Day Zero,” said the Mayor’s office. “We can no longer ask people to stop wasting water. We must force them.” Day Zero moved up another 10 days to April 12. The city was losing the race against time.

More drastic measures had to be taken. The government mandated that everyone reduce their usage to 13 gallons per day. To help people understand this limit, public service announcements demonstrated how to manage life with that amount of water, like taking sponge baths instead of showers.

Government posters showing how to live on 50 liters of water (same as 13 gallons)

Setting targets had already failed, so this time the mayor added penalties. It became illegal to wash cars or water home gardens. A new tax fined homes for exceeding their allotment. The city started installing water management devices to automatically shut off and reduce water at houses using the most water.

Now it may seem that the people should have done more to help, but many blamed the government for the problem. One resident, Shaheed Mohammad, complained, “The city is completely mismanaging the water. They are not fixing the leaks. They are not reducing the pressure in the pipes. They are using water management devices that they know are defective.” Many residents felt that the government waited too long to react to the problem and should have taken steps much earlier.

Regardless of whose fault it is, the crisis remains and the clock continues to tick. The government recently secured an additional water supply from a dam near Cape Town for 60 days. Also, the latest stringent usage policies have started to help. In early February, for the first time since Day Zero was established, the deadline was moved back almost a month.

What happens on Day Zero?

Moving Day Zero back by one month is a positive sign, but more progress must be made. Six of the seven projects to get new water are delayed and officials are saying they need until August to meet the demand without draining the supply.

Day Zero is the final part of the plan. It allows Cape Town to run for 150 more days before completely running out of water. The plan is extreme and requires shutting off the water completely. Officials will turn off the pipes for all houses and businesses. The faucets will run dry. People will have to go to one of 200 water collection sites around the city to collect water. They will be able to collect 6 gallons per person, half the amount they are allotted currently. Each site would serve about 20,000 people, so the lines will be long. By shutting off the water and using collection sites, the government can completely control how quickly the reservoirs deplete.

If people continue to use less water every day, Day Zero can move further and further out. But unless drastic change happens, Day Zero will arrive.

People in Cape Town have already started using the water dispensaries.

Dig Deeper:

Day Zero has probably changed since this article was written. To track the situation, check out when is Day Zero is and how the city is doing on completing its water projects: link

Here is the official 3 phase plan to deal with the water crisis from the city government: link

Tell us what you thought of this article by completing this survey!


Onishi, Norimitsu, and Somini Sengupta. “Dangerously Low on Water, Cape Town Now Faces 'Day Zero'.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 Jan. 2018,
Said-Moorhouse, Lauren. “Cape Town Cuts Water Use Limit by Nearly Half.” CNN, Cable News Network, 1 Feb. 2018,
Think Water, Government of Cape Town,
Ziervogel, Gina. “Op-Ed: Cape Town's Bid to Lock Down the Water Crisis.” Daily Maverick, Daily Maverick, 20 Dec. 2017,