Why Cape Town Is Running Out of Water, and Who’s Next

The South African city plans to shut off the taps to 4 million people. But it’s just one of many cities around the world facing a future with too little water.


Editor’s Note: Since this story was first published on February 2, the “Day Zero” when Cape Town is set to turn off its water supply has been moved back several times, first to May, and then even later. As of March 5, the day was set for July 15. The city has gotten “a slight reprieve” thanks to area fruit growers using up their annual water allocation, making more available for the city, and some water routing and conservation measures.

By summer, four million people in the city of Cape Town—one of Africa’s most affluent metropolises—may have to stand in line surrounded by armed guards to collect rations of the region’s most precious commodity: drinking water. Read more

From Not Enough to Too Much, the World’s Water Crisis Explained

Many more cities than Cape Town face an uncertain future over water. But there are emerging solutions.

“Day Zero,” when at least a million homes in the city of Cape Town, South Africa, will no longer have any running water, was originally scheduled for April. It was recently moved to July. The three-year long drought hasn’t ended, but severe water rationing—limiting people to a mere 13 gallons (50 litres) per person per day—has made a difference. (To put this into perspective, an average U.S. citizen uses 100 gallons (375 liters) per day.)

“No person in Cape Town should be flushing potable water down a toilet any more.… No one should be showering more than twice a week now,” said Helen Zille, the premier of the Western Cape province, where Cape Town is located.

Like many places in the world, Cape Town and the surrounding region has likely reached “peak water,” or the limit of how much water can be reasonably taken from the area, says water scientist Peter Gleick, president-emeritus of the Pacific Institute. Gleick, who has spent substantial time in South Africa, says the country generally has good water managers. Read more

Tracking Ocean Plastic Pollution From Space

The European Space Agency is developing technology to allow satellites to identify the concentration, movement and origin of plastic debris across the world’s oceans.

A European Space Agency satellite. European Space Agency

PAOLO CORRADI AND Luca Maresi had the same idea: tracking plastic trash from space.

Corradi, an engineer with the European Space Agency’s (ESA) optics division in the Netherlands, had been hearing about plastic marine litter from a friend at a nonprofit working on the issue. Maresi, Corradi’s boss, had seen the problem firsthand during sailing trips.

“We actually had the same study idea independently and inspired by different reasons,” Corradi said.

The men figured that deploying satellites to monitor marine litter on a global scale could give researchers working on plastic pollution data about its abundance, concentrations and movement. But it remains to be seen whether such satellite tracking will be possible and whether it will be useful in the effort to combat a huge and growing problem that has spawned “gyres” of plastic trash in the world’s oceans. Read more

10 Pictures of How People Get Water Around the World

Water is the common denominator of life.

All around the world, water is a precious resource, the common denominator of life. When it’s reliable and clean, people tend to take it for granted. When it’s the opposite, it can become the crucial fact of a person’s existence, something that, if left unaddressed, prevents anything else from happening.

Roughly 2 billion people don’t have reliable sources of clean drinking water and one child every minute dies from preventable waterborne diarrheal disease.

By 2050, demand for fresh water is expected to grow by more than 40% and around a quarter of the world’s population will live in places where water resources are endangered, according to the United Nations. Read more

The World Won’t Have Gender Equality, Until It Fixes Water Inequality

In many families, the burden of collecting water falls to women and girls.

What could you do with an extra five hours in your day?

Get some more sleep? Maybe hit the gym? Read that book you’ve been meaning to start?

For women all over the world, an extra five hours a day would be a rare gift.

As we mark World Water Day, it’s worth realizing that for a family of four living without clean water available close to home, five hours is the amount of time required for collecting water – a burden most often borne by women and girls, who are usually tasked with the difficult and sometimes dangerous daily chore.

Some 844 million people don’t have access to clean water close to home – that is, water from a clean source within a 30-minute round trip. Even at this distance, a family trying to gather the WHO-recommended minimum 50 liters (13.2 gallons) per person would spend five hours a day lugging 20-liter jerrycans to and from water points. That adds up to 76 days each year. Read more