Cape Town residents may lose piped water to their homes within two months if they do not act to counter the effects of the worst drought to hit South Africa’s second city in almost a century.
Local authorities have warned four million people that if they do not reduce consumption by “day zero” – 12 April – they will have to queue at 200 standpipes for daily rations of 25 litres (6.6 US gallons).
The city, which attracts millions of tourists every year, has enforced strict waste controls, including prosecuting homeowners who use more than the 87-litre daily limit.
However, the measures have not been enough, forcing local officials to bring forward “day zero” by nine days.
“Due to a drop in the dam levels of 1.4%, day zero has, as of today, moved forward to 12 April,” the deputy mayor, Ian Neilson, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Every day that consumption exceeded 500m litres, the last day of normal water supply drew closer, he said.
The critically low Theewaterskloof dam in Villiersdorp. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA
“It is still possible to push back day zero if we all stand together now and change our current path.”
On 1 February, even stricter water restrictions come into force, limiting the maximum use per person to 50 litres a day, down from 87 litres. Earlier this year, the city published a name-and-shame list of the worst water offenders in Cape Town, and it says it is issuing fines for the heaviest water users.
Farmers have been asked to cut back on irrigation, car hire firms have stopped washing cars, hotels have restricted all uses of water, while tourists in self-catering accommodation have been asked to restrict personal washing.
Discussions are under way with the South African armed forces to enable water to be stored on military bases. Officials have been criticised for failing to implement usage restrictions sooner, and accused of ignoring warnings by experts in the years before the drought.
Experts say it is unlikely the targets will be met.
“Day zero has been heading in one direction and that’s towards us,” said Christine Colvin, a resident and freshwater expert with the World Wildlife Fund. “The only way to push it back is for Capetonians to dramatically change their consumption, but we haven’t done it very successfully so far. Even now, only half are under the 87-litre limit.”
Queues are forming at natural springs around Cape Town as residents seek to minimise mains usage and build up emergency supplies of water.
There are concerns that city authorities do not have a clear plan in place for standpoint distribution.
Helen Zille, the premier of Western Cape province, said if every family in Cape Town sent one person to fetch their water allocation‚ about 5‚000 people would congregate at each distribution point every day.
“As things stand‚ the challenge exceeds anything a major city has had to face anywhere in the world since the second world war or 9/11,” Zille, a former mayor of Cape Town, said.
The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, runs both Cape Town and Western Cape province.
Much of southern Africa recovered from a drought induced by the el Niño weather phenomenon after heavy rain in the summer. But Cape Town receives most of its rain in the southern hemisphere’s winter – and scientists say there is no guarantee of a good rainy season.
A range of factors is thought to have aggravated the drought, including a surging population and economic development, poor long-term planning, limited investment in water management, and invasive “thirsty” species.
Colvin said Cape Town residents and authorities needed to understand that climate change meant severe drought would be “the new normal”.
“This is not a one-off … We need to use this now to reboot our entire system to be prepared for it in the future.”