Cape Town’s Water Crisis: A Warning that Earth is Running out of Time

In Cape Town, South Africa’s second-largest city after Johannesburg, the four million people who live there have been surviving a drought that has persisted for nearly three years. Since 2014, the city’s water supply during dry season has rapidly been decreasing, and the trend has become so dramatic that the city will soon literally run out of water.

For months, Cape Town and its surrounding areas have only received rain once every few weeks. As an example, the city went without any rainfall between January 7th and February 11th. In this time period of over a month, the massive city received just over half an inch of precipitation. With this weather trend, plus their current rate of water usage, it is predicted that the city will experience their “day zero” by May 11th, 2018.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1600"] Cape Town, South Africa[/caption]

The term “day zero” refers to the exact predicted date that municipal authorities will cut off the taps to homes and businesses, meaning that a massive city — a city roughly the size of Los Angeles — will have no access to running water. Instead, the government will be setting up about 200 water collection stations for residents to gather their strictly-rationed 25 litres per day. For context as to how much water this actually is, the average American individual uses 300 litres of water per day. Currently, Cape Town resident’s have already been advised to not consume more than about 85 litres per day.

When Cape Town runs out of water — and that’s a when, not if — the city’s water collection stations will be guarded by police and armed defence forces in order to keep the peace. Cape Town’s Mayor said months prior to the writing of this article that the city had “reached the point of no return,” and that regardless of what happens now, Cape Town and its surrounding areas will have to wait years before the dams and reservoirs fully recover. Of course, that’s also only if the droughts don’t persist. Unfortunately, this means that Cape Town’s “day zero” situation could last for a quite some time, placing strains on the region’s political and societal structures. This community of four million is being forced to ration their most precious resource, and when it comes down to the final litre it may spell danger for the most vulnerable and dependent.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] A graph depicting Cape Town’s available water supply trend in gigalitres, from July 2013 to Present.[/caption]

As reported by Vice, the aforementioned water usage restrictions and drought don’t just mean general discomfort and inconvenience for Cape Town’s general public: it also means a threat to survival. According to Water Shortage South Africa (WSSA), there are over 12,000 people who will have their taps shut off at home but will not physically be able to travel to water collection stations themselves to get their daily 25 litres. Organizations like WSSA are working on assisting those who will need help the most, but it is unlikely that all dependents in Cape Town will get the assistance they need.

While there are organizations seeking to help those in need, there are also dozens of groups and individuals who are looking to make a profit from the crisis instead. Ads dating back from November of 2017 indicate that South Africa’s finest entrepreneurial citizens are privately acquiring and selling pumps, tankers, filters, and large containers of water to Capetonians who are looking to avoid penalty from the municipal government. The closer Cape Town gets to reaching “day zero,” the more money these private vendors make, and the more strained the larger area’s water supply becomes. Though it is illegal for people to sell municipally-sourced water, history shows that people don’t play by the rules when resources wear thin.

“There have also been postings for water tankers — trucks for moving water — in other cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria, and water purifiers promising reverse osmosis technology.”  —  Ankita Rao, Vice Motherboard.

What’s particularly disturbing about this story coming out of South Africa is that it’s just the beginning of what is predicted to become an alarmingly brutal trend. Cape Town is just the first on the list of many cities and countries that will literally run out of water and resources due to drought and extreme heat.

In a report published in 2015 by the journal Nature Climate Change, new data and evidence was brought forward that suggests parts of the Persian Gulf region will begin getting affected by “unprecedented events of deadly heat” as a result of climate change. Carried out by professor Elfatih Eltahir at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Jeremy Pal PhD ’01 at Loyola Marymount University, the high-resolution models they created found that many major cities in the region could “exceed a tipping point for human survival, even in shaded and well-ventilated places.”

After extensive study, the two researchers concluded that climate change in the Persian Gulf region “is likely to severely impact human habitability in the future,” because they will begin to experience “another category of heatwaves, one that may be fatal to everybody affected.” Another concern, as MIT News notes, is that these extreme conditions will be particularly dangerous for poorer states in the region, such as the country of Yemen.

For the past two decades, we’ve been witnessing the effects of climate change in action across the planet. In 1996, Chicago was hit by a deadly heat wave that killed over 700 people, and a slew of deadly heat waves have affected other countries all over the world since then. Just over 20 years later, South Africa’s second largest city is about to run out of drinkable water. As if that wasn’t bleak enough of an outlook on the future, new information published this past summer shows it is almost inevitable that nearly the entire planet will become subject to deadly heat waves annually, not just the Persian Gulf and Africa. It is estimated that 75% of the world’s population will be regularly threatened by highly fatal heatwaves (20 days or more annually) before 2100.

If action isn’t taken immediately to stop climate change, then it seems as though Earth’s climate itself will find an alternative solution to the problem.

While South Africa may be having a water crisis right now, the rest of the world isn’t far away from having a survival crisis. Unfortunately, action on this issue seems to be non-existent in the United States, with climate-change-denier Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency openly working with the US auto industry to roll back regulations, and even pushing efforts to suspend climate change rules that are so monstrous that they are getting stopped in court.

As the world continues to ignore the issue of climate change, the future death toll from fatal heat waves and other calamities rises. Unfortunately, those in positions of political power today have little financial or political incentive to implement policies that could help protect the populations of the future, meaning that we may never see any action on the issue until it’s too late.

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