July 9 is the date. Right now, the rich are buying out bottled water supplies. Companies that drill private wells have year-long waiting lists. Shopping malls and businesses have toilet stalls politely divided into ‘No. 1’ and ‘No. 2’ and provide hand sanitiser rather than taps. But it hasn’t been enough: Cape Town is going to run out of water, and on the ‘Day Zero’ of July 9 2018, the taps will be shut off.
Cape Town’s six dams are at 24% capacity, a strict 50-litre per person limit on consumption is being just about adhered to, and nobody knows what rainfall levels will be this year— but if its current three-year drought continues, Cape Town is going to run out of water. The South African government’s current prediction for the date when taps will be switched off is July 9, a postponement from the last date, which was last April: conservation efforts have managed to push it back. The rich will turn to water stashed away in private tanks and bottles, and the rest to a planned 200 military-supervised wells with a strict 25-litre-per-person limit a day.
Cape Town is one of the most effective and eco-efficient cities in the world, with great efforts being put in to reduce per capita water consumption. In fact, the population has swelled in the last twenty years, but water consumption hasn’t, a startling feat of efficiency. It hasn’t been enough. Dwindling rainfall due to climate change is forcing Cape Town into a new era of water shortage that might be eased by the May rainy season, but won’t be fixed by it. And with water sources being in the state they are in now, Cape Town may be the first of many.
Our planet is mostly water; it seems like a resource that could never run out. However, of all the water on our planet, 2.5% is freshwater— and 0.014% is readily available, the the water we rely on to flow through our taps. As the world population booms and lifestyles get richer, water consumption has increased and increased. Drought and polluted water makes people think of Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, developing cities. Nobody thinks of the West, where cities have been struggling with growing water demand for years.
Dublin is one of those cities. A pipeline from Tipperary to Dublin carrying water from the Shannon has been proposed for 2021-2024. The reason why has been paid little attention to: Dublin, though not as severely as Cape Town, is running out of water. Dublin’s water consumption is now exceeding the water available. London’s almost depleted all of its groundwater in the 60s— and its population has only grown.
And that’s Dublin, in the strikingly wet and well-drained Republic of Ireland. The city of São Paulo, Brazil, suffered a drought almost as bad as Cape Town’s in 2016. The striking difference here, though, is that the whole affair was kept under wraps: as the city’s main water supply dam was at 5% capacity, no public announcement of crisis was made for fear of public outcry. A state of emergency was not declared in anticipation of a coming election, and acknowledging the disaster would have ruined the government’s population. It’s a story echoed elsewhere; nobody wants to be told, after all, not to use any more water— particularly the richer, water-guzzling industries. As a bitter resident of Cape Town noted, the vineyards (which require massive amounts of water) have not been cut off, nor have the swimming pools of the rich been drained.
Agriculture uses 70% of freshwater, and more people need more food; and in rich countries, wealthier populations are starting to eat meat, a food source that demands exponentially more water than current sources. Increased farming, factories, drinking water, sewage: pressure on water supplies is due to increase greatly.
Water usage has increased sevenfold in the last century, and it’s only just now that we’re starting to look at the consequences. Studies have predicted that by 2030, water demand will exceed available sustainable water by 40%. Glaciers, which supply one-sixth of the world’s freshwater, are melting irreparably due to global warming; it’s projected that in twelve years’ time, one-third of the world’s population will be getting water from a deficient source. Dams, wells and rivers have always been points of conflict and tension in water-deprived regions, and now poor practise is causing many of those sources to dry; and tensions will only exacerbate in the future, as old 50s-and-60s water management struggles to meet 2018’s issues.
Surely and not-so-slowly, massive water reserves are beginning to dry up. The Aral Sea, one of the biggest environmental disasters of the last fifty years, has dwindled to under a pathetic 10% of its previous size due to mismanagement. The Colorado river no longer reaches the sea due to over-usage for the cities around it. The drier parts of Australia are approaching a similar water crisis. Irrigation and redirection has created massive settlements in completely arid areas, but when irrigation and water redirection fails, the booming populations are left high and very much dry. Even rivers, natural groundwater, and glaciers will become over-exploited and vulnerable if demand becomes too high— so how long is it until the rest of the world follows Cape Town?
Desalination plants, where seawater is purified into usable freshwater, are given as one solution. But desalination is expensive, and it’s not healthy for the surrounding waters either; the [seas around the middle east] are getting saltier and saltier as waste salt from desalination is pumped back into the sea, and desalination is consequently getting more and more expensive. Water-rich countries seem to have endless wealths of water, but sources are getting more variable than ever in the face of climate change. Floods, storms and dry periods will all make freshwater less and less reliable, and by all accounts they’re predicted to increase in the coming years. Glaciers (which supply about a sixth of the world’s freshwater) are melting and disappearing rapidly, rainfall is getting less and less reliable, and population and demand everywhere only continues to grow.
Where does that leave the rest of the world? It’s difficult to predict. Water management is going to take a serious turn in the next fifty years; now it’s simply a matter of how, and how much strife and suffering it takes before it does. Cape Town is the first major city to run out of water, but it is certain to say now that it won’t be the last— and perhaps we’ll be seeing private wells and unflushed toilets in the Irish future too.