Day Zero

The freshwater supply in Cape Town, South Africa is predicted to run dry by May 11, 2018

By on February 6, 2018

Jeremy Wiss | The Quinnipiac Chronicle
Imagine turning on the faucet to brush your teeth in the morning and no water comes out. Even when winds blow so hard that the power shuts off, the Quinnipiac campus has generators that ensure students have electricity and plumbing 24/7.

Although planet Earth can seem like an endless wealth of natural resources, it’s not. Nearly 70 percent of the world is covered by water and only 2.5 percent of it is fresh, according to the United States Geographical Survey.

As of October 2017, there are over 7.5 billion people using that fresh water every day, according to World Meters.

The amount of freshwater has been dwindling in Cape Town, South Africa for the last three years, due to a severe drought. The city’s water comes from a reservoir at the Theewaterskloof Dam, but water levels have dropped dramatically, according to USA Today.

The mayor of Cape Town Patricia de Lille has dubbed the day when all freshwater in the city will run out ‘day zero.’ ‘Day zero’ is estimated to be May 11, 2018.

William O’Brien, a film, television and media arts (FTM) professor took 16 students on a three week trip to South Africa over winter break. This trip was part of his single camera documentary production course.

O’Brien used to live in Cape Town and has taken students there for 11 years. He knows the area well and knows the need for help. He also knows the impact that his trips have on his students.

“A lot of students who go abroad say, ‘Oh boy, this changed my life!’ But I know that it does,” O’Brien said. “I’m sort of picking them (students) up and turning them inside out. If they happen to be suburban or white, they immediately become the minority and if they’re African American or other nationalities, they are surrounded by a lot more people who look like them.”

Photo courtesy of Kirby Paulson
O’Brien also values this trip because he said it displays the greatest disparity between the rich and the poor on the planet.

He said that near the waterfront of Cape Town, where the students stay, there are Lamborghini and Ferrari dealerships. Then not even five miles away, there are two million people living in tin shacks.

“How do you begin to sort that out?” O’Brien asked.

O’Brien has seen Cape Town change over the last 30 years. He said that the government is cutting back on the amount of water used for agriculture.

The largest dam, Theewaterskloof Dam is basically empty, according to O’Brien. The other dams still have quite a bit of water in them, but their ability to rapidly transfer that water from one dam to another is not completely in place.

Fortunately for the people of Cape Town, winter is approaching which means the city can cut back on the amount of water for crops. The rains, if they come, come in May and everyone is trying to get to May with the expectation that there will be rain.

‘Day zero’ was originally April 24, but was moved up to April 12, then moved back to May 11, according to CNN.

O’Brien said that the ‘day zero’ date was pushed back because the government shut off the water that went to agriculture. That saved a substantial amount.

Although this method will save water in the short term, shutting off the water source for agriculture has additional ramifications down the road, in terms of citrus production, husbandry, livestock and wine industry.

Jeremy Wiss, a junior political science major, went on the trip and was one of two students to attend a press conference with the de Lille and hear her speak on the water crisis.

De Lille created a new water restriction that has never been used before, a level 6b restriction, which limits residents to using only 25 liters of water per day, according to Wiss.

“The community used to be on 6a, which is the worst level that has ever been used in history of mankind,” Wiss said. “Now they’re on 6b, 25 liters of water per day. You don’t realize, but that is nothing. You and I probably use upward of 200 liters a day.”

Wiss said that the first words out of de Lille’s mouth during the press conference were, ‘We are now in crisis aversion mode, we are panicking.’

The people of Cape Town have every right to panic. The average human in America uses 80-100 gallons of water per day; over 378 liters a day, according to the United States Geological Survey. Only 50 liters per day doesn’t leave much room for error.

Doing one load of laundry uses 10 liters of water, a 90 second shower uses 15 liters of water, one toilet flush uses nine liters, an average dog bowl takes one liter of water, daily hygiene such as hand washing uses three liters, cleaning the house uses five liters. That leaves seven liters of drinking water before hitting the 50 liter limit, according to Western Cape Government.

Katie Lepore, a senior FTM major also attended the trip. She said that while they were there, the students could only take two minute showers and they couldn’t drink the tap water. There were signs everywhere constantly reminding them to be conservative and use water sparingly.

Photo courtesy of Kirby Paulson
Although there are a number of dams, only one small one is owned by Cape Town. Most of the dams are owned by the South African government, which is the department of water and sanitation.

Many people believe the department of water and sanitation is bankrupt.

“There’s no money, they spent it all and there’s not much that the government can do,” O’Brien said. “Also, they never completed the real system that would connect all these dams with the pipes. They can’t move water from one dam to another.”

In addition in bankruptcy, the people of Cape Town believe that the government is corrupt.

O’Brien said the government had a study in 2012 that said that the city was going to run out of water in 2018.

“They could’ve fixed this between 2012 and the present day if they had acted,” O’Brien said. “The national government, run by the ANC is intensely corrupt, everyone’s got their hand out, there are a lot of tenders being passed.”

Capetonians told Lepore that they thought ‘day zero’ was a hoax by the government.

Yet, despite the lack of trust in their government, the Capetonians are desperately trying to conserve water.

During his time in the city, Wiss witnessed the locals coming up with innovative water saving techniques.

“I spoke to a ton of locals, and everyone has a gojo can catching the rain water,” Wiss said. “We met with a guy who was doing hydroponics, saving all his water and he had 50 koi fish cleansing the water and fertilizing plants. Another man had a dehumidifier, sucking water out of the air, just to remain afloat.”

Lepore saw locals praying to the skies for rain.

During the three weeks in the city, Wiss said he felt a sense of accomplishment by bringing awareness to Cape Town.

“I realized that I was part of a team that brought awareness to this issue through this documentary,” he said. “I didn’t even know that Cape Town was in a serious drought until I signed up for the trip.”

This situation in Cape Town is not affecting Quinnipiac students at the moment, but give it some time, and our students will be lining up for their daily dose of freshwater as well.

Imagine walking miles to stand in a long line of your sweating neighbors to collect the daily ration of fresh water. Doesn’t sound fun right?

O’Brien lived in Los Angeles for 16 years. He said that LA and Cape Town have parallel, mediterranean climates.

“In the US it depends on where you live, I think the American Southwest and the desert is going to get continued fluctuations of dryness,” he said.

The south is getting the effects of climate change in two ways, too much rain and much more fluctuation of heat and cold, according to O’Brien.

“Up here in the north, we are lucky because we have good water resources,” he said. “Climate change and population explosion is having a major effect on this, as is lack of planning.”

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About Hannah Feakes

Content Director
Journalism Major
Twitter: @h_feakes47
Class of 2019