South Africa's Cape Town Is Set To Run Out Of Water In April

Jan 30, 2018
Originally published on January 31, 2018 11:23 pm
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Cape Town, South Africa, is running out of water. Drought and overuse have brought the city to the edge of disaster. Day Zero, the day that taps run dry, is set to happen on April 16. Peter Granitz reports from Cape Town that people are angry, confused and afraid.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Here in the low-key, upscale Newlands neighborhood, dozens of cars are backed up nose to trunk on this narrow, leafy, dead-end street. The attraction - a flowing spring of fresh water. The water is cold and clean enough to drink. Hundreds of people are waiting their turn to fill buckets, bottles and jerrycans with water from the Newlands spring. Hair stylist Sarah Badi is filling 10 6-and-a-half-gallon water cans.

SARAH BADI: We're washing hair. We're doing everything there. So we need water.

GRANITZ: Oh, so you use this water for your salon.

BADI: Yes, for our salon.

GRANITZ: Badi does not live here in Newlands. She lives in the poor area of Gugulethu, where she says recently the water has sometimes flowed brown out of her tap. She's worried about her children's health.

BADI: I boil the water because now it's extremely dangerous just to drink water without boiling.

GRANITZ: David Rhodes comes to Newlands three times a week to fill at least 25 gallons. This is drinking water for his wife and two college-age children. They've done what they can to reduce the amount of water they use at home. They don't flush the toilet. They limit their showers to 90 seconds and collect the excess in a bucket. But he says he's worried about unrest, so he's going to leave the city.

DAVID RHODES: Until it either stabilizes or until I know what's going on and until I know that my family can be guaranteed safety.

GRANITZ: Officials are indeed worried about public safety. The government says it will deploy police and military to guard water collection sites if authorities have to turn the taps off on Day Zero. The city will operate some 200 sites where residents can collect 6.6 gallons per person. The sites have not been publicly identified. It's unclear when they'll be open, how long the lines will be, whether people can send someone in their place.

IAN NEILSON: Well, those are the kind of details we are still working through, exactly how it would work.

GRANITZ: Ian Nielson is the city's deputy mayor.

NEILSON: Certainly the hotels and that that are in the key business areas would continue to get supply.

GRANITZ: Cape Town attracts tourists from around the world drawn by its design, culture, local wine and its natural beauty. Table Mountain stands over the city, a peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. The city has grown dramatically in the last two decades, and its population has nearly doubled to almost 4 million people. The dams that feed this city are just a quarter full following three years of below-average rainfall. Nielson says the city will turn off the taps before the dams dry up in an effort to try to limp along until the rains come.

NEILSON: We would trigger this before the dam water runs out. There would still be adequate water in the dams for this low level of consumption for at least three months.

GRANITZ: Three months might bring the city to the rainy season. But if the city does not get the rain it needs...

NEILSON: Then we're in very serious trouble.

GRANITZ: The city asked residents to limit use to 23 gallons a day. That failed, and now the city is slashing the number further to 13 gallons a day. On Thursday, it will hike rates. The most prolific consumers will see a sevenfold increase in their water bill. Cape Town is also looking at new ways to supplement the city's supply such as desalination plants and drilling new boreholes. But six of the seven projects are behind schedule, and they will only contribute enough water to delay Day Zero a few days. For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Cape Town.

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