3 Things Cities Can Learn from Cape Town’s Impending 'Day Zero' Water

Cape Town is running out of water.

After three years of intense drought, South Africa's second-largest city is just a few months away from "Day Zero," the day when the city government will shut off water taps for most homes and businesses.

The impacts of such a shutdown will be devastating. Citizens will have to wait in long lines at state-managed distribution points to receive a mere 25 liters of water per day, less than half the water needed for one average shower. Experts are already warning of public health concerns like poor sanitation leading to faster spreading of dangerous diseases, especially for the city's poorest residents, and forecasting that pipes may crack from dry conditions, endangering future water distribution if and when the drought ends. The Western Cape Premier has warned that "normal policing will be entirely inadequate" to manage the chaos that could ensue.

Although this instance is one of the most extreme, Cape Town is not the only city to suffer from intense water scarcity in recent years. From São Paulo to Los Angeles, cities around the world have made headlines due to severe droughts intensified by climate change and exacerbated by poor water management.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Here are three steps cities around the world should take to boost water security and resilience:

1. Understand Risks

Many cities are experiencing growing water risks. Climate change is shifting cloud patterns and the hydrologic cycle in certain regions, making rainfall more variable and droughts more common and intense. At the same time, the world's cities are growing at a rate of 3 million people per week, increasing competition over scarce resources.

Each city has unique risks it must be aware of. For example, Cape Town has medium-to-high inter-annual variability, meaning precipitation varies greatly from year to year. Although Cape Town has suffered droughts in the past, wet years usually follow, refilling reservoirs that supply the city with almost all of its water. But during the current record drought, reservoir levels have fallen to 25 percent.

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