The South African city of Cape Town is running out of water. The city government estimates that “Day Zero” — when reservoirs are too low to provide potable water — will occur April 12. This is the first time that a major city faces such circumstances and offers important — and alarming — insight into the future of a world marked by climate change.

The city’s plight is the result of a confluence of factors. First, Cape Town is in its third year of a severe drought, the worst in over a century. In fact, climate scientists believe multiyear droughts occur in southern Africa only once every 1,000 years. Second, and related to the drought, is climate change, which has shifted weather patterns and triggered the dry spell. Finally, there is Cape Town’s rapid population growth. It is South Africa’s second-largest city with a population of a little over 4 million people and its expansion has strained facilities and resources. While experts have been warning of the possibility of water shortages for over a decade, the city has been slow to find other water sources for residents and visitors.

The water stored in the city’s six dams has been rapidly decreasing. In September 2015, water levels were 77 percent of capacity; they have fallen to 15.2 percent, and the last 10 percent is difficult to use because of water pressure and cleanliness concerns.

Earlier this month, city officials warned that “Day Zero” — when water levels hit 13.5 percent and the city will begin to hand out rations of 24.6 liters of drinking water per person per day, an amount set by the World Health Organization’s guidelines for the minimum amount of water needed for emergencies — would arrive on April 22. The date has since been moved up to April 12.

Starting Feb. 1, residents will have to cut water consumption in nearly one-half, to about 50 liters a day. Showers are being limited to 2 minutes, and the use of appliances like dishwashers and washing machines reduced. Unwashed hair is reportedly becoming a symbol of good citizenship. Mayor Patricia de Lille said the new restrictions have been imposed because more than 60 percent of residents use too much water. And, ironically, the prospect of new restrictions has prompted residents to start hoarding water, intensifying the drain on resources. It is estimated that usage remains 86 million liters above target.

The city is installing new desalination facilities and searching for new sources of groundwater, but they take time and money. Both the city and national government have been slow to respond and they have each been quick to blame the other for delays; only in August did Cape Town receive $1.5 million from the central government for the crisis.

Water shortages are more than an inconvenience. Not only is water essential to life, but without water, sanitation and hygiene are impossible to maintain. The poor are hardest hit by shortages; they often lack access to water infrastructure and cannot afford to buy supplies from stores. The shortage is also a body blow to a city that is an international tourist attraction and hosts 2 million visitors a year. Travel and tourism contribute about 9 percent to South Africa’s GDP, so the news will deprive the government of additional revenues that can be used to fund solutions.

It is tempting to see Cape Town’s problem as a distant crisis. Unfortunately, this is likely to be the first of many such crises. Extreme weather conditions are spreading and “once in a hundred year” events much more common. Population centers are growing at ever faster rates and getting more crowded, overburdening resources and infrastructure. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with “absolute” water scarcity (less than 500 cubic meters per year per capita), and two-thirds of the world’s population could be under “stress” conditions (between 500 and 1,000 cubic meters per year per capita).

Japan is not immune to this problem. It, too, has low levels of usable fresh water and since the early 1960s it has suffered from a water shortage roughly once every 10 years. Globally, average annual water availability — the maximum amount of water available to one person — is about 8,000 cubic meters; in Japan, it is only about 3,400 cubic meters. In Tokyo, the numbers are similar to those of northern Africa and the Middle East. Summers are increasingly subject to warnings of water shortages, and intake restrictions are not uncommon. The concentration of the Japanese population in Tokyo means that strains will intensify. Cape Town is a lesson. We should be planning for water shortages now.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.