In March, I canceled a spring trip to South Africa. I wasn’t sick. There were no family emergencies. In fact, at the tip-top of my list of travel dreams is to hang out with penguins on Boulders Beach. So why wasn’t I going? I was afraid to use the water.
Following three years of drought with extremely low rainfall, the reservoirs of Cape Town, South Africa—fed solely by rainwater—now sit at only 26 percent capacity. Citizens have been asked to adhere to a strict 50-liter per person, per day limit on water use. To put that in perspective, a 10-minute shower dumps out 100 liters, and the average American uses six times the Cape Town limit each day. Locals are bathing in buckets to reuse the runoff, flushing toilets only when necessary, and collecting water from natural springs. In February, the city started counting down to what has been dubbed “Day Zero,” the point at which reservoirs fall to 13.5 percent capacity and the city shuts off the taps entirely. Hospitals and other key economic areas would be spared the cutoff, leaving the majority of citizens to line up at one of 200 heavily guarded communal taps for a 25-gallon per day water ration.
This crisis, caused by global warming coupled with booming population growth and poor resource planning, would make Cape Town the first major city in the world to run out of water. It isn’t the only one facing a countdown, however. Cities like Beijing, Istanbul, Cairo, and São Paulo are all staring down water supply shortages in the coming decades.
During an early-April visit to South Africa, Seattle-based makeup artist Kaija Towner felt Cape Town’s predicament first hand. “The adjustments asked by most places were easy to do. Hand sanitizer instead of water in public bathrooms took a minute to get used to, but it was fine,” she says. “It was strange to be drinking bottled water for the environment.” She did notice a tendency for fancier establishments to ask less of their customers—evidence, she says, of Cape Town’s historic class issues remaining alive and well even today.
But are Cape Town’s dire straits actually an environmental phenomenon? Many argue that Day Zero is a political disaster as much as a natural one.
The city’s provincial government, overseeing all of West Cape, is under control of the Democratic Alliance (DA). The national government, however, is run by the DA’s oppositional party, the African National Congress (ANC)—and to say that these groups don’t see eye-to-eye would be an understatement. The rivalry between the two parties has led many to suspect that the ANC is slow to offer preemptive infrastructure funding, insisting instead that the provincial government should foot the bill. Vice versa, the DA has been accused of holding back provincial dollars with the expectation that the ANC ought to step in. This game of political finger-pointing has done little to address the needs of Capetonians, who suffer the brunt of the contention as taps run dry while the government hashes out issues of who’s responsible for what.
There is hope. The city’s drastic efforts to curb water use have pushed back Day Zero from, originally, early April to late July. Then it was bumped to August. Now, with the rainy season on the horizon, authorities have called off any immediate panic, but are still urging conservation efforts to hopefully circumvent a crisis in 2019, making water restrictions a new norm in Cape Town, at least for now. Desalination plants, boreholes to groundwater, and increased water taxes are all part of the plan to keep Cape Town hydrated into the future.
For now, though, the city’s businesses and tourism sector hope the water situation won’t entirely deter potential travelers. “The impact of tourism on water supplies is minimal in comparison to the huge positive contribution it makes to the local economy and employment,” says Anahid Harrison, owner of the light-filled Derwent House—a 10-room boutique hotel in Cape Town’s scenic Tamboerskloof suburb. His worry: that the saddest outcome of the disaster will be a loss of jobs due to the dip in tourism. (Derwent House saw 42 cancellations within the first two weeks following the announcement of the Day Zero campaign. Bookings for this fall are also significantly down.) Guests that do check into Derwent House are welcomed with an explanation of the current water issues and asked for their help in conservation. Like many establishments, instructive signage has been posted throughout with reminders in guest rooms (plus water-catching buckets in showers, gel hand sanitizer, and a lack of bath plugs) of ways to save resources. “Ninety-nine percent of our guests are extremely receptive,” says Harrison. “And those from places such as Australia and California have shared our experience and are completely unfazed by the limitations and measures.”
Derwent House has reduced their water consumption to below the city’s target of 45 percent over the previous year, yet they’ve still seen the cost of their water bill more than double, a further blow to hotel’s financial predicament. “We are imploring the city to be creative in exploring alternative means to fund the shortfalls outside of punitive tariff increases,” says Harrison. “Just as they asked us, the tourism sector, to ‘be creative’ in encouraging visitors.” Overall, Cape Town’s efforts and innovations will create a blueprint for the future as other cities face similar crises and hopefully shed a light on the uncertainty of resources as cities everywhere face threatening environmental changes and global warming. “Day Zero affected our stay in a way that opened my eyes to my gluttonous use of water at home,” says Towner. “Some of the locals joked about how conservation efforts were too little too late. It definitely made me feel like I should think more about water use in my everyday life.”
In hindsight, I wish I would have kept my booking. I was so afraid of taking away a single drop of water from those who needed it, that I failed to see the big-picture impact my tourist dollars would have on the city—not to mention the eye-opening experience of understanding a crisis in our modern environment. In the meantime, I’m training myself to take the shortest showers because there’s no doubt I’ll be seeing Cape Town very soon.