cape town
In 2017, Cape Town faced a water crisis that was so severe, its municipal authorities began bracing for Day Zero. Image Credit: Unsplash/Sharaan Muruvan

Imagine lining up at a collection point every day to receive your daily ration of water. It’s not a far-fetched idea – Cape Town, South Africa, was on the brink of it in 2017.

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After three consecutive years with a dry winter, Cape Town faced a water crisis that was so severe, its municipal authorities began bracing for Day Zero – the day they would have to shut down the city’s water supply, and residents would be forced to line up for daily water rations of 50 litres per person.

That level of conservation is foreign to most people in urban regions. For instance, an average person in the US goes through 303 to 378 litres of water in a day, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Ultimately, Cape Town managed to avoid Day Zero – but just barely. City authorities implemented stringent water restrictions throughout the period, such as prohibiting water for pools, lawns and other nonessential uses, and establishing a steep fine penalising heavy users of water. Restaurants were told to cut back on making pasta and boiled vegetables, and tourists were asked to take short showers. The city also encouraged toilet flushing with grey water (gently used water from bathroom sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines), and installed electronic signs around the region, letting people know how many days the current water supply would last. A city-wide map was also released, allowing people to compare their water usage to their neighbour’s.

As authorities and residents buckled down, in 2018, it finally rained for the first time in four years, saving the city from its imminent water crisis. However, Cape Town isn’t out of the woods yet. Scientists say their Day Zero hasn’t been shelved – it’s just been postponed.

Using high-resolution simulations, researchers from Stanford University, US, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that human-caused climate change has made the kind of drought that South Africa faced in 2017, up to five or six times more likely. The study, which was published in November 2020 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, warns that such extreme events could go from being rare to becoming commonplace by the end of the century.

Other parts of the world that experience the same climate as South Africa, such as California, US, or southern Australia and Europe, could experience their own Day Zero droughts in the future.

Cape Town hasn’t forgotten its near-miss. According to the US-based Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University, the city has invested in desalination plants and groundwater projects, which could help avoid another Day Zero. And their reservoir’s water levels are now reported daily in the news, along with the weather forecast, so that people are always cognisant of water scarcity issues.

Do you try to conserve water or pay attention to how much water you consume? Play today’s Word Search and tell us at