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When I left for South Africa in January, I didn’t expect my friends and family to hear much about the region except for what I shared with them. I certainly didn’t expect CNN to feature Cape Town on their front page mere days after we flew there from Johannesburg.

During our first two weeks in the northeastern corner of South Africa, we were vaguely aware of the massive drought affecting the country, but it was little more than an interesting piece of gossip. We heard that the animals in the nature preserve were struggling, and saw that many rivers had entirely dried up. All in all, it felt like a minor inconvenience and had little to no impact on our daily life. Upon landing in Cape Town, however, the crisis became very tangible. Public Service Announcements covered every wall and were repeated over the intercom at least every 15 minutes. Sinks in the restrooms had been shut off, replaced with waterless hand sanitizer.

Public service announcement at a hotel near the CPT airport

Once we arrived at Stellenbosch University that evening, our program coordinators stressed the importance of reducing water consumption on an individual basis. We were each instructed to use no more than 50 Liters per day, and told what that meant in practical terms such as number of toilet flushes, minutes seconds of showering, and bottles of drinking water.

Sand timers, distributed to help us limit our showers to 90 seconds or less

All focus was on “Day Zero”: the date when the municipal water supply would be shut off. After this point, the guidelines for restricting consumption to 50L per day (13 gallons, based on the honor system) would be replaced by strict limits of 25L per day (6.6 gallons). The daily rations would be obtained in plastic jugs from a government collection site under the supervision of police and military guards. The Day Zero estimate is updated every Monday, and at the time we arrived in late January, it was estimated at April 22. The next week, it was revised to April 12.

CNN (link) and other US news outlets (link, link) began to pay attention, since this would be the first time in modern history that a major city ran out of water. Not good. As noted by two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry, “drinking water is essential to a healthy lifestyle.” (source)

Water crisis notifications posted on the doors of each suite in our residence

At first, the situation appeared to be straightforward: there was no rain, and there hadn’t been any rain in a very long time, so the Western Cape had no more water. As we’ve been here for close to a month, though, I’ve begun to see more nuance. The water crisis is at the front of everyone’s minds, as you might expect, and no one is shy about opining on the matter. Some of these, such as Dr. Jo Barnes, one of our first guest lecturers at Stellenbosch, are experts in the field and have spent decades researching the environmental and socio-political factors that play into water shortages. Others, such as my waiter at lunch yesterday, have… less of a background. Many, however, seem to understand the crisis as at least as much of a political problem of mismanagement as a natural problem of rainfall shortages. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is little confidence in the provincial and national governments to handle the Day Zero distribution operations any more effectively than they have handled the previous 3 years of drought.

The front page of a local newspaper

While living under the constant specter of losing one of your most basic biological needs is unsettling, the reality is that the Northwestern students are safe. By even the most dire estimates, the water will last until we leave in late March. Even if Day Zero defied all predictions and arrived in the next month, Stellenbosch is far enough inland that its water reserves will last far longer than Cape Town. And if Stellenbosch itself dries up? We can fly home. That’s not the case for millions of people in our province. They will be here, and they will be affected. Aside from their immediate survival, their longer-term economic stability is in jeopardy as well: the economy of the province is based largely on tourism and wine exports, both of which will plummet if or when the taps turn off.

The Theewaterskloof Dam, the source of roughly half of Cape Town’s water (Source: NASA)

Day Zero estimates have shifted since we arrived, and were drastically moved back in the past two weeks as billions of gallons of water were released from agricultural use in the center of the country to flow toward reservoirs near the coast. Perhaps, as some skeptics say, it will never arrive at all. Let’s hope they’re right.

Estimates of Day Zero over time

Μηκέτι ὑδροπότει, ἀλλ’ οἴνῳ…

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