February 12th, 2018

For the past three years, Cape Town, South Africa has experienced a drought so severe it could soon become the first major city anywhere in the world to run out of water.

If that happens, all non-emergency municipal water supplies will be turned off except in the poorest neighborhoods; residents will be required to source their water from one of 200 available collection sites, and each person will have access to only 6.6 gallons per day — a maximum that will be enforced by armed guards in order to keep the peace.

“Day Zero,” officials predict, could arrive as early as May 11th.

Cape Town’s efforts to prioritize water conservation over the past twenty years in the face of an increasingly modern, affluent and rapidly growing population has been lauded, but ultimately, researchers say city officials still failed to adequately prepare for rising water demand, and for the precipitation shifts projected due to climate change.

Ready or not, it’s a fact that such crisis scenarios will likely become more common in the not-too-distant future in urban centres worldwide as population growth and associated demand for water rise even as scientists predict an increase in the number of dry spells and severity of droughts.

Imminent water distress or drought is already a fact of life in every continent:

  • Arizona only recently came out of a six-year dry spell that is believed to be an unprecedented event in the past 675 years.
  • More than 24 million Californians are now living in a drought zone, compared to 15 million a year ago.
  • Sao Paulo, Brazil, was down to a 20-day water supply in 2015 after reservoirs dropped so low that only last-minute rains prevented authorities from having to close taps completely.
  • Currently, many of the 21 million residents of Mexico City only have running water part of the day, while one in five get just a few hours from their taps a week.
  • In Jakarta, residents are pumping groundwater at such a rate that the city is not only running dry, but sinking faster than sea levels are rising.

And here in Canada, drought in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan have resulted in both historically high numbers of historic wildfires and low crop yields, forcing farmers to change the way they operate to accommodate for climate change.

Globally, competition for water is increasing as population growth drives demand for drinking water and agriculture. It’s a grim situation bound to become more common and dire as urban populations continue to spiral upward along with socio-political unrest often including conflict and migratory pressures as witnessed now in Africa and the Middle East. .

Proposed solutions include desalination of ocean water as well as making water supply systems more robust and resilient in the face of severe climate situations. However, educating the public of the role of population growth in driving climate change and in placing unsustainable demands on water resources must also be a top priority — as should be more effective and sustained measures to reduce and eventually reverse population growth.

Given the shortcomings of efforts in these crucial areas, Capetown is almost certain to be only the first of many large urban centres worldwide to experience such a serious crisis in its water supply.

Contact: Madeline Weld, Ph.D.
President, Population Institute Canada
Tel: (613) 833-3668
Email: [email protected]