The Day Zero That Didn’t Come

But did touch off a lot of concerns:

The prediction had been that after years of an intense drought, Cape Town’s dams would be so depleted and local reservoirs so bone-dry that one day in the autumn of 2018—between March and May in the Southern Hemisphere—the city would cut off the water flowing to taps. That date, the “Day Zero” in question, captured the attention of Western press. Photographs of the brown, cracked mud flats where drinking water once flowed abounded. Papers wrote breathlessly about the doomsday scenario of mobilizing military assets to secure water distribution points, fearing the possibility of violent clashes over resources.

Day Zero didn’t happen—and as Wolski told me, it may have never been in the cards. But, over the course of a year, the idea really did deeply change the city all the same. Water scarcity, and the potential for a catastrophe, spurred upheaval and anxiety. During that time, a local government pushed a water-conservation agenda more ambitious than just about anything the world had seen. Cape Town faced political fallout and experienced widespread protests. Divisions between the haves and the have-nots in one of the most unequal cities on Earth became the center of discourse. The racial wounds of a post-apartheid country opened once more.

In its march to slash water consumption drastically, this metropolis of 4 million people also became a harbinger of how water will constrain global cities in the future, and how climate change will bring turmoil and a new slate of challenges to places where class and racial divides are deep. Day Zero is still hypothetical, but Cape Town’s reality will soon impact many global cities, where water will become a constant concern, and democracy will become contingent upon the taps.

Israel offered to help with desalination technology. It’s technology that cannot come fast enough.

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One thought on “The Day Zero That Didn’t Come

  1. Absent a couple of years of record-breaking snowfall, Day 1075* is going to hit Lake Mead in the next couple of years. I don’t remember the details of the order in which the Colorado River lower basin states take their cuts, but there will be ugly stuff between the farmers who use the large majority of the river water and the cities and power plants who extract enormously more value from their share. Although there’s a possibility that the federal Bureau of Reclamation will decide on its own to let enough water out of the Glen Canyon Dam to keep the lower basin states going full bore at the expense of the upper basin states (my reading of the agreements is that such a decision would be illegal, but the time to drag it through the courts would buy the lower basin states time for a possible miracle).

    * The water level in Lake Mead dropping below 1075 feet above sea level is the trigger for a lower basin water emergency.

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