I recently attended a panel discussion at the University of Illinois at Chicago discussing the issue of lead service lines in Flint, Mich., and elsewhere in the Midwest. The discussion was eye opening, full of impassioned speakers with diverse viewpoints about the state of water infrastructure. But one main theme was clear: water is a basic human right, and when that right is threatened, citizens should take action.
As a Chicago resident who drinks water from Lake Michigan, I can take the quantity and quality of my water for granted. For most of us, the thought of running out of water is incomprehensible. Even in Southern California, where drought conditions have prevailed on and off for most of the last decade, mandatory usage restrictions were implemented and fines were issued to those not in compliance, but the state has yet to threaten a complete shutoff.
Cape Town, South Africa, however, is facing a much different kind of drought. A severe lack of rainfall has drained reservoirs, leading to a critical water shortage, and the burden of water use reduction is placed largely on the shoulders of Capetonians. Residents are limited to approximately 13 gal per day, and those who exceed that limit risk the government installing a water management device on their property. The water department also has reduced pressure across the distribution system, to further discourage water use.
At press time, Day Zero is set for June 4, pushed back from the previous May 11 date, thanks to some rainfall and generous water donations from Western Cape farmers. On Day Zero, when the reservoir reaches 13.5% of its total capacity, taps will be shut off and 200 police- and military-patrolled collection points around the city will provide residents with 6 gal of water each day. For reference, the average person uses 80 to 100 gal of water per day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Communication will be most important tool in this dire time. Teaching Cape Town residents to be resourceful with the water they do have is key to keeping water use down. The city of Cape Town’s website includes a number of resources to help residents find alternative water sources and safely reuse greywater in their homes. Local water treatment equipment dealers also are proposing solutions, including greywater systems, wastewater treatment, and even using backyard pools as reservoirs.
Water is a basic human right, and when forces beyond our control take that right away from us, it is up to us to be part of the solution. The situation in Cape Town is by no means ideal, but the government seems to be doing what it can to provide resources and solutions to residents to maximize the efficiency of the water that is available. Hopefully when the drought is over, Cape Town’s response will serve as a model for other communities facing similar plights.