Day Zero is looming. And there is little Capetowners can do about it.

South Africa’s second city is running out of water. Its residents are already facing rationing, tough choices on whether to flush a toilet or take a shower, or even a drink.

Come April, Cape Town, a major international tourism and business centre, may have to shut off its taps. As climate change bites, the African city looks like being the first in the world to run out of water. This is the front line of global warming.

The figures are stark. Water consumption in Scotland runs about 150 litres a day. Capetowners are now limited to 50, in hopes to keep the water flowing just a little longer.

The rich are digging boreholes — private wells to reach water in the aquifer. The poor are waiting in lines daily to fill up water containers. Businesses - not least local breweries - are worried they might have to close.

There is resentment. Neighbours in better-off neighbourhoods are reporting each other for switching on lawn sprinklers or swimming pools.

Some people are hoarding water - putting more pressure on the system.

“People are buying anything that can hold water,” resident Richard Stubbs told CNN. “No buckets, no gas cans or drums are in stock. So people are buying bins, vases and large storage boxes.”

Capetowners stocking up on water

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It is a crisis, but a slow-moving one. The severe drought didn’t happen overnight, though.

More than half of Cape Town’s water comes from a reservoir at the Theewaterskloof dam, but water levels have dropped severely due to low rainfall over the last three years.

The reservoir has shrunk dramatically. US space agency Nasa has published satellite images showing its surface area almost halving. Day Zero could see taps switched off for a million people.

Officials have been alarmed that citizens are ignoring calls to preserve water. Many, for example, are shrugging off advice to spend no more than two minutes in the shower.

Cape Town May Patricia De Lille 

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Mayor Patricia De Lille said: “It is quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards Day Zero.

“At this point we must assume that they will not change their behaviour.”

Some Capetowners are angry that officials such as Ms De Lille did not have a plan in place for this, especially since the Western Cape is a water-scarce environment.

But the chance of the region experiencing a prolonged, three-year drought were one in 1,000, said Kevin Winter of the University of Cape Town’s Environmental and Geographical Science Future Water Institute.

Dry reservoirs

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Government officials have been hopeful “Day Zero,” estimated to happen in mid-April, won’t come to fruition but have a plan in place.

Taps will be turned off before the dam runs completely dry and the city will set up 200 collection points where residents will stand in line and collect six gallons of water daily, 27 litres.

The collection points will be under army and police supervision.

Public safety has been a point of concern as water becomes more scarce.

The hope is with increased conservation, the city’s water will last until at least May when the rainy season should start but experts say there’s no way of knowing when it will begin and the drought will end.

“We’re in a critical transition period where the past is no longer an accurate guide to the future,” said Christine Colvin, a freshwater manager for the World Wide Fund for Nature and a member of the Cape Town mayor’s advisory board.

Filling up with water

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Since there is uncertainty about when the drought will end, the city has also been examining other water alternatives, including drilling into the ground to reach aquifers.

For now, the city, which borders the South Atlantic Ocean, is setting up a temporary desalination plant to convert saltwater to fresh water.

The plants have become a mainstay in the Middle East and parts of Africa.

Cape Town Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson told reporters the plant will start producing water in March.

But these other options aren’t cheap. The Cape Town water utility’s deficit has ballooned to more than half the total budget for the year. That number is widely expected to rise.

There are also worries the water crisis could have a long-term impact on the city’s economy if “Day Zero” does occur.

But emergency planners have immediate concerns. How will people behave when they have to queue at a standpipe for water?

Greg Pillay, the city’s head of disaster planning, was blunt. “We’ve identified four risks: water shortages, sanitation failures, disease outbreaks and anarchy due to competition for scarce resources,” he told The Guardian. “We had to go back to the drawing board. We were prepared for disruption of supply, but not a no-water scenario. In my 40 years in emergency services, this is the biggest crisis.”

Mr Pillay added:”We don’t want to create panic. We can avert Day Zero. We had hoped that rainfall would replenish the dams, but it hasn’t happened. What this signalled to me what that climate change is reality. If you doubted it before, you can’t now.”

Water standpipes

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