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As 'Day Zero' approaches, Cape Town faces a waterless future

South Africa has faced crisis and uncertainty many times in the past, but never before have we approached a bigger, more all-encompassing crisis with so few leaders, moral or otherwise, at the helm

An aerial image of Cape Town, South Africa.

Journalist, filmmaker and media practitioner based in Cape Town.

The city of Cape Town is an overtly beguiling place. Its neat grid of moderate skyscrapers spills out into quaint colonial houses and glassy mansions over the foot of Table Mountain. Yachts and catamarans moored in the harbour belong to the rich and powerful playboys and cover girls who spend the summer months chasing sunsets in sports cars and drinking local chardonnay by the cellarful, before returning to their office jobs in New York and Luxembourg. Thanks to the country's sputtering economy and weak currency, it's cheaper to buy a mansion with an infinity pool on the cliffs of Camps Bay than it is to own a modest house in Toronto. In the winter months, these lavish second homes stand empty along the Atlantic Seaboard.

To create this playground for the world's wealthy – otherwise referred to as foreign investment – the city's administrators have developed a particular skill: marketing. They focused aggressively on promoting the Mountain, the ocean, the prime real estate, the wineries – even the penguins. You know, the fun stuff. Next, they built opaque walls of denial and delusion around the sprawl of a growing poor and working class, the lack of adequate infrastructure and services, the prevailing apartheid legacies on the other side of every railway line, river and road. In short, the City of Cape Town's award-winning PR machine convinced the world this place was simply heaven for the hedonistic. You can only choose to ignore the manifestations of urbanization, inequality and, well, nature, for so long.

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The term "Day Zero" first entered the South African lexicon (and collective subconscious) last October, when it became clear that, some time in the first half of 2018, Cape Town might wake up one day to dry dams. I was one of the first journalists pushing to publish that Cape Town could soon become the first major city in the world to run out of water. At the time, it seemed like alarmist sensationalism, and my editors advised me to change the wording. After wrapping up the reporting for the story, I stood in my living room looking out over the burgeoning neighbourhood of Sea Point and wept.

Residents collect water from a spring in the Newlands area of Cape Town on Jan. 22.

Cholera. Outbreaks of violence. Mass exodus. Economic meltdown. It was hard not to acknowledge the ramifications of a waterless and uncertain future unfolding step by grim step, the way my expert sources laid them out. Over the months, their predictions came true, one by one. Cape Town's economically crucial port soon started warning boats in need of fresh water not to dock here. Residents of the uberwealthy Bishopscourt neighbourhood began paying a premium to have unregistered boreholes quietly drilled in their gardens, just in case their lawns needed a pep. Tourists were rethinking their Christmas holidays.

But it was October, and neither panic nor action was forthcoming. Water was still flowing out the taps. Swimming pools were still blue. Local PR officers, I mean "politicians" – who had had 18 years advance warning of the probability of this drought – were only just starting to hold emergency news conferences, deploying vague, jargony terms such as "the New Normal," "Level 6b restrictions" and "portable desalination plants." Regardless, this was Cape Town, for God's sake. If anything, we would soon be drowning in water from all those rising sea levels we'd been told so much about. No. This wasn't going to happen. Not here, in this idyllic, improbable little bubble on the tip of Africa. Not to me. Not in my backyard.

Only in Cape Town could a person "other" a natural disaster. With 340 years of colonialism, 216 years of slavery, several brutal civil wars and 46 years of apartheid to our name, South Africans – particularly Capetonians – are better at othering than most others anywhere. Never mind the 24 years of democratic governance we've had to overhaul our systems, delineations and mindsets; a precedent-setting Constitution written by some of the most generous-spirited individuals of an entire generation; and a remarkable willingness on the part of an oppressed majority to forgive and forget in exchange for peace and shared economic prosperity. No. In 2018, this city is so rabidly neoliberal it makes San Francisco look like a kibbutz. Our levels of inequality are unparalleled. Our fear of the other and impulse to self-protect are as entrenched in our social DNA as they are reinforced by our PTSD. And this will likely be what turns this natural disaster into a man-made catastrophe.

When politicians finally confessed the severity of the situation to the public in early 2018, it triggered real, genuine panic for the first time. Cape Town has been governed since 2009 by a party in opposition to the ruling African National Congress – the Democratic Alliance (DA) – a party whose popularity lies mainly with the white and well-heeled, a small but economically powerful minority who were only too happy to countenance a head-in-the-sand approach to Cape Town's myriad looming crises if it meant they could keep their lavish lifestyles. For months, Mayor Patricia de Lille had been overselling her administration's ability to manage the drought, while berating citizens constantly for what she said was irresponsibly high water usage.

The term ‘Day Zero’ first entered the South African lexicon last October, when it became clear that, some time in the first half of 2018, Cape Town might wake up one day to dry dams.

It was a recklessly obfuscatory line of PR that tanked miserably when, in January, Ms. de Lille tried to force through a "drought levy" to make up for a shortfall in rates and taxes, due to citizens' drastic reduction in usage. Oh, then didn't the neoliberals howl with rage. "No swimming pool and I have to actually pay for water?!" The Democratic Alliance promptly threw Ms. de Lille under the bus and brought in the head of the province and party to oversee disaster management in her stead. Within days Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane had quelled fears of a levy and launched a TED-talk style hashtag campaign called #DefeatDayZero, with a snappy Powerpoint presentation headed "DECISIVE ACTION."

It was as though a portal to a parallel universe had opened. It was mid-January, 12 weeks before the predicted Day Zero, and there was no mention of the progress on the desalination plants we'd been hearing about for months. Just a photograph on screen of Mr. Maimane standing in front of a pile of large pipes, followed by the announcement that a daily allowance of 120 megalitres would be "brought online" by May. The lowest recorded threshold has consistently been around 540 megalitres. The same day, Ms. Zille tweeted a photograph of her feet in a small bucket of water, with the statement: "It's amazing how little water one actually needs for a good scrub."

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The irony is that millions of Capetonians have been bathing in a bucket of water collected at communal taps in the townships and rural areas their whole lives. The backlash was cringe-worthy, as was the outpouring of frustration and unanswered questions from rich and poor alike. Enough with the condescension: Where are the experts from Windhoek and Adelaide and Barcelona who have mastered drought prevention? Where are the controlled water-management schedules and the exorbitant fines for those still watering their lawns at the crack of dawn? Why, if you've had 20 years to prepare for this situation, can you not yet tell us whether our hospitals, our schools, our offices and our homes will be habitable; and what we should do if they won't be?

We are left with fear. The fear of the unknown, compounding our fear of each other. A 12-year-old Model United Nations enthusiast could tell you that, in a country as fractious and wounded as South Africa, our bureaucrats are sitting on a political H-bomb. The cracks are already showing. Earlier this week, a fight broke out between residents collecting water at a local spring, where people have been queuing 24 hours a day for weeks. The brewery that owns the rights to the spring – technically a public resource – has yet to have its licenses revoked and that source of millions of litres of potable water added to the augmentation supply. A friend witnessed three people get into a heated argument over the last bucket at a local plastics store. Supermarket delivery trucks are being rushed every morning, selling out of bottled water by noon. Local bottling companies have been caught in a price-gouging syndicate, and advertisements for swimming-pool water delivery from mysterious reservoirs and "private boreholes" are easy to find online.

Residents collect water from a spring in the Newlands area of Cape Town on Jan. 22, 2018.

With 12 weeks to go to a potentially precedent-setting humanitarian crisis, the whole world will now be watching to see what we do. We may be the first city to run out of water, but we definitely won't be the last, and the manner in which we see this crisis through could make a tremendous difference to how other cities learn to cope in the not-too-distant future. We've already figured out that politicians are lousy at contingency, because their terms only last so long and their budgets only stretch so far. That's going to need to change, because it turns out crisis prevention and disaster management end up being a lot more costly than taking a more cautious, long-term view, for both the public coffers and the party ratings. Potential cholera outbreaks don't tend to win a lot of votes. Also, if you're employing and paying teams of scientists producing report after report telling you a major drought is likely and that augmentation options are not only viable, but ready to be brought online, it seems reasonable that you would heed their warnings and drill those boreholes when they say so.

Cities should also start actively influencing the culture of water use through sustained marketing and education efforts and legislation, by making it socially unacceptable to use more than is absolutely necessary. After a few months of using less than 50 litres a day, down from 87 litres, I and many other Capetonians can say with confidence that that is more than enough water to live with comfortably. Most people I know now have a minor panic attack any time they hear a toilet flush. Using less takes discipline, planning and consideration, but it is habit forming. If the American Ad council and global law-enforcement entities could work together to enforce the wearing of seat belts, there's got to be as effective a motivation to acculturate people to valuing and saving water. Perhaps the notion of disease and drawn-out death from thirst is a good one.

South Africa has faced crisis and uncertainty many times in the past. When we have made it to the other side of the abyss we have proved to ourselves and the world what unity can achieve. There is much to learn from one another, including how to appropriately bathe out of a bucket. Never before have we approached a bigger, more all-encompassing crisis with so few leaders, moral or otherwise, at the helm. So it is up to us to decide whether we will stand together again, or let go and jump into the unknown, alone.

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