photo-Morgana Wingard / Getty Images
In January 2018, when officials in Cape Town announced that the city of 4 million people was three months away from running out of municipal water, the world was stunned. Labelled “Day Zero” by local officials and brought on by three consecutive years of anemic rainfall, April 12, 2018, was to be the date of the largest drought-induced municipal water failure in modern history.
Photos of parched-earth dams and residents lining up to collect spring water splashed across news sites. The city’s contingency plan called for the entire population to collect its water — a maximum of a two-minute-shower’s-worth a day per person — from 200 centralized water centers, each serving the population equivalent of an MLS soccer stadium.
Then April 12th came and went, and news of the crisis evaporated.
One year on, Cape Town has apparently made it through the worst of a historic drought without turning off the taps, although the water supply is still tenuous. How the city managed to evade disaster — a combination of water conservation and efficiency measures, smarter use of data, and a little help from Mother Nature — serves as a largely hopeful precedent for cities globally facing increasing risk of extreme environmental events. Still, serious challenges in establishing a resilient and sustainable water supply system for Cape Town remain.
90 critical days
The countdown to Day Zero was 90 days. So what did Cape Town do to beat it? Unsurprisingly, it was not a silver bullet but a barrage of efforts that averted disaster. One big boost came in February 2018, when the national government throttled allocation of water in the region earmarked for agriculture, allowing more to flow to urban residents. The same month, farmers also agreed to divert additional water stored for agricultural purposes to the city.