Foreign Policy Blogs

Cape Town Awaits “Day Zero”

Cape Town Awaits "Day Zero"

Picture from City of Cape Town. (Source: Alberton Record)

Cape Town, South Africa (a city of four million people) is at a dangerous inflection point.
National Public Radio (NPR) reports that South Africa’s second main economic driver and
Africa’s third main economic hub city could be the first major city in the developed world to run
out of water, if residents do not heed new stricter water measures. The New York Times (NYT)
reported that “the day of reckoning the government has tagged as “Day Zero” will surpass
anything a major city has faced since World War II or the Sept. 11 attacks. So how did one of
Africa’s most promising cities – one that boasted high “green” credentials – so rapidly find itself
without water?

A Convergence of Factors

One of the undisputed story lines of this national emergency is that the Southern Africa region
has become drier in recent years. However, the cause of this dryness is somewhat disputed by
scientists. Experts such as Piotr Wolski, a hydrologist at the University of Cape Town who has
tracked rainfall in the region for most of the last two decades believe that climate change has
exasperated dryness in a historically dry region. Climate models support Mr. Wolski’s forecast
that Cape Town will remain on a dry trajectory and that precipitation will become less
predictable in the coming decades.

Other internationally renowned scientists like Dr. Augusto Jose Pereira Filho, (Professor of
atmospheric science at São Paulo University) believes that there are other atmospheric dynamics
in play causing the protracted dryness. He explained in an email response that lower mean water
temperatures in the Southern hemisphere continues to reduce ocean evaporation leading to a dry
lower atmosphere (read: no moisture for cloud formation) across the Southern Africa region.

This is the same cooler ocean and dry atmosphere dynamic Dr. Filho argued in 2015 was the
leading cause of Brazil’s once in a century drought in 2015. Though the precise causal factors
are debatable (i.e., how much is stunted ocean evapotranspiration versus how much is locked in
CO2 induced temperature rise), there is little argument as to who is getting the brunt of the blame
for Cape Town’s nightmare.

Lots of Finger Pointing

The much disputed part of the crisis backstory is how much city planners did to prepare for a
scenario that many warned was not only possible, but inevitable. According to David Olivier,
who studies climate change at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Global Change Institute,
“The national government has dragged its feet.” It is further alleged that in the first two years of
the drought, the unpopular African National Congress (ANC) led national government failed to
limit water supplies to farmers (the large wine industry ) thus intensifying the problem. But the
finger pointing doesn’t stop there.
It is also argued that the city government didn’t make common sense investments that could have
averted the crisis such as tapping into local aquifers and investing in desalination plants. Another
contributing stressor is rapid population growth as tens of thousands of regional migrants flowed
into a city that has been on the upswing seeking employment.

To diffuse culpability city officials have blamed residents for not heeding previous water
consumption edicts and restrictions. The embattled Mayor, Patricia de Lille alleges that well over
half the residents are not heeding warnings and she has threatened to impose fines. Ms. de Lille,
who is embroiled in a corruption scandal and facing a possible recall is staying the course
stating recently, “I’m committed to making sure that this well-run city does not run out of
water…We can all avoid Day Zero but we must do it together.”

Unfortunately, many don’t share her optimism and it is reported that talks are underway with
South Africa’s police to start planning for the impending chaos because “normal policing will be
entirely inadequate.” The city is hoping for the best and planning for the worst in advance of
“Day Zero” – a historic tipping point that will occur before the end of April if the already
implemented countermeasures (e.g., rationing and water sourcing) prove not to be effective.

Not the First; won’t be the Last

Sao Paulo, northern California, Paris (experiencing the heaviest rains in 50 years), Houston, and
Puerto Rico, and now, Cape Town are just representative examples of regions that were
grievously unprepared for protracted changes in weather patterns. Poor planning under-girded by
complacency (or misinformation) about the disruptive capacity of climate change effects, is a big
reason populations continue to be unnecessarily injured by a phenomenon that scientists,
politicians and activists have been warning about for over a decade.

Lastly, the most salient lesson to be learned from this unfolding drama is the imperative for
policy makers to factor environmental variability into their governance calculus, or face the risk
of tremendous loss of faith at best, or popular unrest at worst. This clarion call to action will
continue to ring true for many years to come.



Oliver Barrett

Oliver Leighton-Barrett is a multi-lingual researcher and a decorated retired military officer specializing in the inter-play between fragile states and national security matters. A former U.S. Marine, and Naval aviator, Oliver is a veteran of several notable U.S. military operations, to include: Operation Restore Hope (Somalia); and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan and Philippines). His functional areas of focus include: U.S. Diplomacy; U.S. Defense; and Climate Change. His geographic areas of focus include: Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).