Cape Town: What Happens When a City Runs Dry?
Could you live on only 50 liters (13 gallons) of water a day? To better understand the water shortages threatening more and more cities around the world, host Nelufar Hedayat limits herself to 50 liters of water for all her cooking, cleaning, and drinking. She talks to South African water expert Mike Muller and others in Cape Town, South Africa, about how they averted Day Zero, the day their water supply was going to run dry.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
It’s only day one and I already failed this morning because I flushed the toilet.
WOMAN ON PHONE:
How many liters is that?
NELUFAR: Oh my god, I think a lot.
This is “Course Correction,” a podcast from the Doha Debates. Each episode we’ll look at one big global problem — and meet the people who are actively working to fix it.
I’m Nelufar Hedayat, and I’m trying not to flush my toilet. Why, you ask? Well, because I’ve challenged myself to live on only 50 liters of water per day, just like the residents of Cape Town, South Africa.
AMERICAN FEMALE NEWSCASTER:
Cape Town is about to become the first city on Earth to run out of water.
BRITISH MALE NEWSCASTER:
Months of drought are taking their toll.
SECOND BRITISH MALE NEWSCASTER:
Never before in the history of the modern world has a whole city of this kind threatened to run out of water for its citizens completely.
NELUFAR: Today, Cape Town is our window into the reality of water shortages around the world. I’ll be talking to folks who experienced the water crisis firsthand, to hear the real story of what happened there, and how living through the crisis was different depending on if you were a have or a have-not. And to get a peek into what might be our future if we fail to address the problem of water shortages around the globe.
Now, a city without water sounds like a setup for a disaster movie, and that’s how the international media covered it for a few months back in 2018.
AMERICAN MALE NEWSCASTER: The water crisis in Cape Town — it is already a crisis, fair to say, but its 4 million residents are facing the possibility of a full-blown catastrophe.
NELUFAR: During the worst of the crisis, Cape Town told its residents they could only use 50 liters of water a day — that’s 13 gallons. And that was for everything — for drinking, showering, even flushing the loo.
I watched from my home in London — images of people lining up for water, interviews with Capetonians frustrated with the water restrictions. It felt like a glimpse into the future. Right now, nearly one out of every 10 people on Earth don’t have access to clean water. But soon, by 2025, two-thirds of people will be living in water-stressed regions, thanks to population growth, demand and climate change.
So I started wondering: If the world is facing water shortages, what should I be doing to cut my own water consumption? What would it be like to live on 50 liters of water a day? Could I even do it?
I went to work.
During the crisis, Cape Town put out guides to help people stay under the daily limit, showing how many liters each toilet flush and laundry cycle cost. I studied those guidelines like I was preparing for an exam, and decided to start my challenge on a Tuesday in late February.
NELUFAR: Okay, it’s somewhere like 8 o’clock in the morning. I’ve just gotten up to start the first day of the challenge and I’ve already failed, you’ll be surprised to know. I just totally subconsciously flushed the toilet this morning. And then, as I was getting up to brush my teeth, I let the water run for like a good 30 seconds. So I don’t know how much liters of water I’ve already completely wasted, but that is not a great start.
NELUFAR: So, after my initial failure, I picked myself up, dusted myself off and I was determined to get it together, while living my life like it was a normal Tuesday. I called my sister Fatima.
NELUFAR: OK, so I’m now several hours into this new challenge. The challenge is to only live on 50 liters of water a day. Like —
FATIMA: How do you shower?
NELUFAR: Well, I haven’t showered. [LAUGHS] I’m having to rush in my showers. I can’t flush the toilet so my bathroom stinks. Yeah, it’s kind of like extreme, but the reason I’m eating out of the frying pan and a bowl is because I’m just trying to like create less dishes so that I have to wash less dishes?
FATIMA: You’re still going to have to wash the pan, though.
NELUFAR: I know, but that’s one less — I mean, do you see the level of like thinking I’m putting into this?
FATIMA: Yeah. I mean, it sounds a lot, but I drink like two liters of water a day. So that already gets you down to 48. Flushing is a hell of a lot of water. I don’t think that’s doable.
NELUFAR: You don’t have faith in my ability to do this?
FATIMA: I think you can do it because you’re determined. But should you let your toilet stink?
NELUFAR: That night, I was hitting the dance floor at my friend’s engagement party.
[BACKGROUND DANCE MUSIC]
NELUFAR: OK, so, the Afghan dance at this engagement party is done. I’m sweating, and all I want to do is go home and have a shower and wash the hairspray out of my hair and the sweat off of my body. And clean my clothes! It’s so stinky. Yeah.
NELUFAR: From there, it just went downhill.
NELUFAR: I just, ugh, this is just — it’s a lot to think about, all the time. And I just — I really had such little appreciation of exactly how much I take water for granted. It’s just shocking to me, the amount of kind of ease with which we live our lives without having to think about the most basic things. I mean, I’ve never had to think about needing fresh water. And now I’m really worried that — I’ve already had my four cups of tea today, and I’m going to have to go to the coffee shop in order to get another cup, because otherwise — [SIGHS]. Yeah. Just yeah. Ugh.
NELUFAR: So yes, I failed. Miserably. I’m embarrassed to say I probably never actually hit the limit of 50 liters. And I know this makes me sound like a little high maintenance, but to be fair, 50 liters — 13 gallons — it’s not a lot of water. As a Londoner, on average, I use three times as much as that on any given day — that’s about 150 liters.
And people from the United States, you use even more! — around 100 gallons per day. That’s over 300 liters, more than six times the experiment’s limit.
And it’s much the same for citizens of the rest of the global north.
Before this challenge, I never thought about my water usage. But now I am hyper aware of all the water I waste. Just look around you next time you’re in a restaurant, at all those glasses of fresh, clean tap water that never get drunk. And I don’t feel good about it, but I also really love to wash my hair and not have to choose between washing my dishes or doing my laundry. Now I’m completely, utterly dependant on using tons and tons of water. I know it.
But now I want to know more. What are the facts at play that are causing water shortages like the one in Cape Town, and what is being done to address them?
So, I reached out to Mike. Mike Muller.
Hi Nelufar, I’m Mike Muller.
NELUFAR: Now Mike’s a bit of a big deal in South Africa’s world of water management.
MIKE: I’ve been working in water with lots of different hats for the last 30 or 40 years. I’ve previously run the South African national Department of Water Affairs — up to 2005. And I’ve done a lot of international stuff. I was chair of the World Economic Forum’s Agenda Council on Water for a couple of years.
NELUFAR: So, he’s the right guy to talk to.
First off, all I wanted to do was tell him about my water use experiment, and how badly I had failed.
NELUFAR: Fifty liters! Sounds like so much. And it isn’t, it really isn’t. I struggled, and I did it for fourdays. I mean — this checked my first world privilege, because I don’t think about water. I just don’t. It’s not a thing that ever surfaces in my mind. It’s a convenient thing that’s always there when I need it. But I, I’ve got to say — I’m joking and laughing about it now, but at the time I was very, very humbled. But I just want to understand, like, is this going to happen to Cape Town again?
MIKE: Water shortages are usually about management and governance of water. And this was a classic case.
NELUFAR: See, when Mike was in charge of the South African Department of Water Affairs, the department told Cape Town they needed to build more infrastructure to increase the water level within the next five to 10 years. But water infrastructure wasn’t a sexy, vote-winning issue. And it didn’t get much support from elected officials.
MIKE: And they were very strong, saying, “We actually think we can keep consumption down, we don’t need to build anything just yet, look how good we are at water conservation and managing the demand.”
NELUFAR: So the city of Cape Town didn’t build that infrastructure — they didn’t drill into the nearby aquifers, they didn’t build plants that could recycle wastewater.
MIKE: Now the trouble with water is it depends on nature and you can’t predict nature very accurately. All you can do is say, “You know, there’s a risk that you will have a drought, and if you have a drought, you will be short of water.” And they were told that, and they said, “We think we’re okay.” And of course, when you challenge nature like that, what tends to happen is the worst-case drought comes, just about as you’re the most vulnerable possible.
NELUFAR: OK. So if you had a pie, and you had to apportion blame to climate change, public policy, the environment, or politics or whatever else, who would get what portion of the blame for what happened in Cape Town?
MIKE: Well, I think- I think that the sort of governance and management in this case — and I’ve documented it as an academic now — it would take at least 70 percent —
MIKE: They have the bad luck of making themselves vulnerable and then having a drought which was a one in 20, one in 50, some of them say it’s one in 300, but it was it was a serious drought but it happened at the time that they had made themselves vulnerable.
NELUFAR: OK, so now I understand why the Cape Town crisis happened. Now I want to know what it was like for Cape Town’s people to live through the crisis. Because from the news coverage, it seemed terrifying.
WOMAN WITH SOUTH AFRICAN ACCENT: I do hope that the government is doing something to prevent Day Zero, because it will be a national crisis. It will be honestly horrific when Day Zero comes. It’s going to be very scary, but I think its a reality, unfortunately.
NELUFAR: Day Zero was the day Capetonians would turn on the taps, and nothing would come out. In January 2018, the mayor, Patricia De Lille, announced that Day Zero was coming, and fast. In fact, it was only three months away.
DE LILLE: We can no longer ask people to stop wasting water. We now have to force them to stop wasting water.
MAN:it was quite a shock.
NELUFAR: Peter Luhanga lived through Cape Town’s Day Zero crisis, and as a journalist, covered how it affected the city’s inhabitants.
PETER: They sort of kept on — invented the term Day Zero to communicate its residents — and sort of like to scare them — to be responsible, to be water wise.
NELUFAR: To get people to take this issue very seriously.
PETER: Yeah. It’s like — what do you call — the state of emergency. There could be stampedes, you know, that sort of thing. We could visualize that we could end up in that kind of scenario, you see.
NELUFAR: For Capetonians, Day Zero made the water crisis real. And Peter says, for the most part, people stepped up.
PETER: It was just being a responsible citizen and playing your role.
NELUFAR: Peter took preparing for Day Zero seriously. He asked his friends who lived in the countryside if he could have access to their ground wells, and he had an emergency water stash at his house, in case Day Zero ever came.
PETER: I mean, I knew we could we could survive it. I could have survived it.
NELUFAR: And as a journalist, Peter kept a close eye on the water crisis. He began noticing something missing in the international coverage. While the news reports showed well-to-do, mostly white South Africans lining up to fill containers of water, Peter knew that there was another side to the story that wasn’t being covered.
Cape Town, like the rest of South Africa, is very segregated. The poorest Capetonians are mostly Black and mixed race, and they live informal settlements on the edge of the city.
PETER:Informal settlements here is like — it’s where people build homes using iron sheets — planks — and it’s a lot of those, you know. It’s sprawling townships.
NELUFAR: Roughly half of Capetonians live in those settlements.
Which brings me to a statistic that truly shocked me: That half of Cape Town — the poor half — they only use 4 percent of the city’s water supply.
That means that only half of Cape Town — the wealthy half — uses more than 95 percent of the water. Why? Well, one of the biggest reasons is because cities haven’t invested in the infrastructure necessary for people to build homes with indoor plumbing. And as a result, residents have to line up at communal taps and carry their water home.
PETER: People living in the informal settlements. Day Zero didn’t really matter, it just didn’t mean anything. For them, Day Zero was always there. If they tell them, “Use 50 liters of water a day less than” — they already use less than that.
NELUFAR: I asked Peter if he could help us be our man on the ground, so we could understand what it was like living in these settlements during the Day Zero crisis. He drove out to the Siyahlala settlement just north of central Cape Town. In Siyahlala, there are eight taps that are shared amongst 10 thousand people. When he got there, Peter met Tacozah N’qozah. She lives with her husband and three kids.
PETER: Tacozah, what time does your day start, to go to the water tap?
TACOZAH: We go early, at 4 a.m. in the morning. And we facing the long queues in our areas to fetch water.
PETER: How long does it take for your tin to collect water?
TACOZAH: We waiting 20 to 30 minutes, or an hour sometimes, because there is the long queues.
PETER: And then how do you carry this water? When back home?
TACOZAH: Carry — put it on my head, on top of my head.
PETER: And so how many trips do you take, how many trips you take to the water tap?
TACOZAH: Me, I’m taking only two trips.
PETER: How big is your jerrican? Twenty liters?
TACOZAH: It’s 20 liter.
PETER: And this water, how many days does it last you?
TACOZAH: Take one and a half day.
PETER: What do you use this water for?
TACOZAH: I’m using for cooking, washing ourselves, washing dishes and to clean the house.
PETER: So the 40 liters of water, you use it to — for five family members. Can you explain, how do you do this?
TACOZAH: I take one bucket, to wash ourselves. One 20 liters is to wash ourselves, and one 20 liters to cook and clean the house.
PETER: Tell me, in 2018, the city announced that there was a possibility the city would run out of water. They called it Day Zero. And there was panic. Were you panicking as well?
TACOZAH: No, I didn’t panic with Day Zero. Because me, I didn’t see the Day Zero. We’re always on Day Zero, every day.
NELUFAR: Sitting here in rainy Londontown, it’s hard to imagine how a water crisis like Cape Town’s could play out here.
But the reality is Cape Town isn’t going to be the last major city in the world to face a water shortage. In fact, whilst I was doing some research for this episode, I found out that London — my London, my hometown— is in danger of water shortages in the very near future.
So I had a few more questions for Mike Muller.
NELUFAR: Right, well I’m going to practice exceptionalism here and because I live in London, right, and it’s not really normally a place that you associate with water shortage. Like I’ve never heard of that being discussed — anywhere, really. But I read recently online that London is even at risk of having a water shortage.
MIKE: Indeed, yes.
NELUFAR: I mean, how much of the world’s cities is affected by this?
MIKE: Well, you know, London’s another very nice example. There’s sort of two big plans that could help London, which have been on the table for decades, not just years. And London’s authorities have been arguing about this for ages, and they haven’t taken a decision. And you know what we say in the business of managing water, is always have your plan for your next big scheme in the drawer, and when there’s a crisis take it out of the drawer and say, “Well, here’s the solution, chief.” And they’ll be desperately grateful that you’ve come up with a solution. It won’t help them in their current crisis because it’ll take too long to build, but it will help them in the next crisis. And I’m afraid that’s how the technical people have to treat the governance people. They almost have to wait for a crisis —
MIKE: — and it takes so long to fix once the crisis starts, that it’s only useful in the next crisis. So we do have a real governance problem. People at the moment — countries, municipalities — are not very good at taking long-term decisions. Like, we’re not doing much about climate change. But equally, in the shorter term, more local term, lots of cities are not doing the right thing to make sure that they don’t run out of water.
NELUFAR: Wait, are these factors at work in other like places — countries, cities — globally?
MIKE: Well, part of the problem is that every place is different.
You know, climate change will make a difference. I think people don’t understand that as the world gets warmer, one of the things that will happen is more water will evaporate from the oceans and end up in the atmosphere. And when that happens, it probably means that you’re going to get more rainfall in many places. And so there’ll be more water. Now there are places — and unfortunately a fair amount of Africa counts this way — if it gets very hot, less water will run off into the rivers, and so it will become more difficult to get surface water. Some places will become drier.
So there are going to be climate change effects, but these tend to be quite slow. And if you’re planning in a 10-, 20-year time horizon, and you’re monitoring what’s happening, you basically take into account the kind of climate change that’s going to affect you.
So I would say — and of course I would say this, because it’s my field of- of- of- work — that governments haven’t put enough resources into resource management, the long-term planning, the long-term resource developments. They haven’t thought about it enough precisely because it’s a long-term problem.
It’s a bit complicated, as I think you’ve probably gathered from this conversation. And politicians don’t like complicated things. They like simple solutions, preferably fashionable solutions.
NELUFAR: So then let’s turn to the solutions. As a global citizen, what can — what can we do to contribute to fixing the problem?
MIKE: OK, I mean, the first thing is, at home and in your life, use your water sensibly. You know, this does make a difference, and in a city which is relatively stable — as London is in terms of population, etc. — you know, it’s, it is possible to stay within the resource available.
I worry most about the developing countries — cities growing very, very fast, money is tight and people are not always looking at the long term. So, you know, whether it’s through United Nations systems or through the World Economic Forum, I’ve always said, you’ve got to understand how important those boring water-resource experts are. Those people — the hydrologists and the water-quality scientists and all the people who do the statistics about droughts and floods — because those are the people who need the support. Even if you don’t notice them for 10 years, you’ll be very glad that they were there when the drought or the flood strikes.
But if we’re really worried about — are we going to have water in the taps today, tomorrow, next year, in 10 years’ time — we really need to reinforce the importance of that science, and that engineering, and that planning. That is what keeps our society’s water secure.
I promise you: Everyone in California and Australia and Singapore was talking about it, and they were saying, “I hope this doesn’t happen here. What do we need to do to make sure that it doesn’t happen here?” So one of the better things about the connected world we have, is the way that a crisis in one country can help to wake up people elsewhere. And let’s hope that Cape Town has had this effect not just in Cape Town, but more widely as well.
NELUFAR: I failed at living on 50 liters of water a day. I learned that my Western, super-privileged lifestyle requires a lot more water than I’m comfortable with.
I don’t know if I can do this full time. It’s so much to ask for. It’s almost as though the world we’ve created — the society that I live in, is not set up for this. We have just built a world that is dependent on over water usage.
But talking to Mike Muller did make me feel a little bit better. Two things in particular stuck with me from that conversation:
Firstly, his takeaway that the crisis in Cape Town woke up other water-insecure cities around the world, so they can urgently plan to avoid shortages.
And second, he puts the lion’s share of the blame for water shortages on bad planning and governance. And that makes the problem feel a little bit easier to tackle. It’s not just up to us as individuals to conserve water. There are concrete steps the people we elect can take to protect us from the worst. We can put pressure on our leaders to deal with long-term water problems now.
Now I know that’s not sexy, but frankly nor was I after a day of barefoot dancing at the wedding and being forced to choose between washing my gross dance-floor feet or the product out of my hair.
Now that is our show for today. And now I want to hear it from you. Have water shortages touched your life, your community? How do you save water in your daily life? Did something in this episode make you think about your water usage in a new way? Tweet us at @DohaDebates.
“Course Correction” is written and hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is produced by Doha Debates and Transmitter Media. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation. Special thanks to our team at Doha Debates: Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. This episode was mixed by Ben Chesneau. If you like what you hear, rate and review the show. It helps other people find us. Join us for the next episode of “Course Correction” wherever you get your podcasts.