“Day Zero” is the tag line for troubling news from Cape Town, South Africa. The term marks April 21st, which is when they expect the city to run out of drinking water. A story from January 18th, via PRI’s The World, Cape town could be the first major city in the world to run out of water‘ offers some perspective.  Listen below:

There has been water rationing efforts for some time, and the news isn’t new, but the  including.  After ‘Day Zero’, residents will have to get water from city collection points, where they are limited to 25 liters per day.

A dashboard from the City of Cape Town provides information on efforts to combat the .  It also confronts with the harsh reality – as of writing this on 01/30, the date of Day Zero had been moved up to April 16th, five days earlier that originally estimated, along with an announcement that “Level 6b water restrictions are in effect from 1 February, which requires all to drop their daily use to 50 litres pp/day or less.”  

For some context, 50 liters is a little over 13 US gallons, which in terms of daily usage is quite low, for instance a page from Water Science School of the USGS estimated that average daily usage is around 80-100 gallons per person, and that a shower can use from 2-5 gallons per minute.  How long will 13 gallons last, when you also must use that for drinking water, cooking, and other daily necessities.

A post from today via The Map Room, provides some visual to accompany this, linking the NASA Earth Observatory, which includes this animate map, with a description from the site: “The animated image at the top of the page shows how dramatically Theewaterskloof has been depleted between January 2014 and January 2018. The extent of the reservoir is shown with blue; non-water areas have been masked with gray in order to make it easier to distinguish how the reservoir has changed. Theewaterskloof was near full capacity in 2014.”

The rapid depletion is driven by what’s been termed a 1000 year drought, which is also amplified by more development.  The cycle of reservoir levels at the dams show this trend since 2013.

There are new technologies being attempted, such as increasing capacity of dams, drilling to tap new aquifers, and desalination plants, all of which won’t be online in time to avert Day Zero, and come with costs that some are balking about, but could help future issues.  PRI also mentions some strategies employed beyond conservation, such as rainwater harvesting .

An article from March 2017 explored similar topics, via The Conversation “Stormwater harvesting could help South Africa manage its water shortages.” discusses strategies “ to adapt to and mitigate water insecurity threats,” including stormwater harvesting from building roofs, stored using ponds, which “can improve water security and increase resilience to climate change in urban areas. It can also prevent frequent flooding and provide additional benefits to society – such as creating amenities and preserving biodiversity.”

An image of one of these projects above shows the holding capcity and amenity. They seem small compared to the massive Cape Town reservoirs which collectively hold over 400 million cubic meters of water, but studies show that collectively “stormwater harvesting had the potential to reduce the total current residential potable water demand of the catchment by more than 20% if the stored stormwater was used for purposes like irrigation and toilet flushing.”  There are also residual benefits including value from amenity value, property values, and flood reduction.


Could the buried springs and creeks provide a supplemental source for drinking water to combat the Day Zero?  As far back as 2013 is an article from Cape Times entitled ‘Cape’s spring water wasted‘, which discusses the work of Caron von Zeil, and Reclaim Camissa “a project that uncovered and documented the vast amount of fresh water that flows underneath Cape Town.”  Identifying the springs and streams that have been paved over potentially provides opportunity to capture drinking water to supplement shortages.

From the article: “Von Zeil’s archive research showed that historically there were 36 springs in the City Bowl. She has uncovered 25 springs and four underground rivers. The City of Cape Town has only 13 springs on their records. Parliament is sitting on two springs and a huge underground reservoir.”

The above photo via their Facebook page is captioned: “This is NOT a riool (sewer) – 8.8million litres of Water flows through here to the ocean on a daily basis…lost to nature and humanity. This is HYDROCIDE.” which gives a taste of the tone.  This strong advocacy they attempt to raise awareness, coupled with  pilot projects, Reclaim Camissa such as a proposal called Field of Springs, which “was to be based on vacant council land in Oranjezicht where several springs were located. It would harness the spring water and be an outdoor water museum with natural ponds where people could see the water being cleansed. It would have an outdoor laboratory, education centre, bird hide and a bottling system where offices that used large glass water coolers could tap into the spring water.”

Von Zeil gave a TEDxCape Town talk in 2011 discussing Reclaim Camissa.  Via the intro it explains that “CAMISSA, meaning ‘the place of sweet waters’ is the ancient Khoi name for Cape Town. Embedded, lost and obscured within the city’s fabric this vital ecological and cultural link still exists….  The vision is one of a genuinely progressive dual water management strategy that offers opportunities for new models to transform the future wellbeing of the city into an equal society for all people; and allows for public integration and education through the recreational use of the system.”

Check out the full talk here:

On a related note, those locals can tour some of these sites via a web app “Cape Town’s Secret Tunnels and Lost Rivers“.  A summary: “Join Matt Weisse on a leisurely walk through the city, following in the path of the old underground rivers and tunnels to the Castle of Good Hope. Parts of the underground Canals and Rivers date back to 1652. They used to supply the passing ships with fresh water. Later these rivers became pleasant walkways shaded by Oaks with bridges going over them. As the years passed and the city expanded they were eventually covered up and forgotten.”

The app provides a map with audio clips of key sites, can’t vouch for the 5.99 price tag, but seems like a cool idea.

HEADER: Image of the ‘Cape Town’s main water supply from the Theewaterskloof dam outside Grabouw, Cape Town, South Africa’ (From the AP, retrieved from Spokesman.com)


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