How South Africa fended off a ‘Day Zero’ water catastrophe with strict rules and what the UK can learn from it

South Africa was being watched by the whole world back in 2018 as Cape Town became the first city at risk of running out of water during a major drought. The situation was so dire that authorities told residents to prepare for Day Zero, when all taps would be turned off.

At the time, residents managed to avert disaster by following stringent rationing. Yet the threat of danger has not passed. While Cape Town has seen some floods lately, it is still predicted to run out of water in 2030. The Nelson Mandela Bay area of ​​Gqeberha city – formerly known as Port Elizabeth – could face a drought lasting for another six years.

Here’s how Cape Town was able to avert the doomsday scenario and what the UK could learn in saving water.

What is Day Zero?

During Cape Town’s drought four years ago, the city’s government announced residents to get ready for Day Zero – a future date when they would have to queue for water as their home taps would be switched off.

Under these conditions, each person would have to stand in line to collect 25 liters each per day. To put that into perspective, it takes six liters to flush the toilet and around five liters to clean teeth if you leave the water running. Day Zero was not a fixed date, but would kick in when water reserves reached as low as 13.5 per cent, meaning they could only be used for critical services. It represented the second to last phase by the Disaster Risk Management Centre, with the last stage being the total lack of water.

But in an incredible show of force, South Africans pulled together to save the water and avert the Day Zero crisis. Cape Town residents observed water-saving measures with a target of just 50 liters per person, per day.

People were instructed to shower for no longer than two minutes – which uses an estimated 30 liters of water – while the ‘if it’s yellow, let it mellow’ campaign to encourage residents to flush only when strictly necessary – was launched. People were also encouraged to use recycled water, so-called greywater, and there were reports of people competing to wash as little as possible.

There was also a ban on filling swimming pools and using water for non-essential activities such as washing your car, while households who used too much water would be faced with a hefty fine. City authorities published a weekly water dashboard showing dam capacity and how the level had changed. Households were also given access to data showing usage and people banded together to share tips.

The government acted to reduce water pressure and target the agricultural and commercial sectors, with the agriculture industry cutting use by 60 per cent. One year on, dams were refilled to 80 per cent capacity and a legacy of water-wise behavior remains.

Priya Reddy, Cape Town’s then director of communications, was quoted by the Sun as saying: “It was the most talked-about subject but it needed to be. It wasn’t a pretty solution – but it wasn’t a pretty problem.

“It was a massive challenge and everyone pulled together in the worst drought in a century, but we did it, and the challenge now is to ensure our water is never ever wasted.”

Is the risk over?

The South African coastal city of Gqeberha was reported last month to be on the brink of its own Day Zero as its near-empty dams caused what local papers branded “an unprecedented humanitarian crisis” .

The Impofu Dam was reported to have hit such low levels that it was sucking up mud, according to South African newspaper the Daily Maverick.

“This is a very tricky time in the life of the Nelson Mandela Bay metro,” Luvuyo Bangazi, Mandela Bay Development Agency spokesperson, was quoted saying last month.

The city has been setting up water collection points which will have both walk-ins and drive-throughs.

Dams there remain “extremely stressed”, while Garth Sampson from the South African Weather Service was quoted saying the drought could last for another six years.

“This is not the longest drought on record [for the region] and could statistically even last until 2027 or 2028. I hope not,” said Mr Sampson.

Meanwhile, the community of Chris Hani village in KwaNobuhle township in Kariega has gone without water for six months.

One resident said that while the municipality insists they are not just days away from a Day Zero, it feels like they are.

“To me, when you are not receiving water consistently for so many months you are on Day Zero,” Monde Plaatjies, 62, said.

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