Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Drought forces Cape Town to the brink of ‘Day Zero’

Drought forces Cape Town to the brink of ‘Day Zero’
19 Jan
Cape Town is edging closer to ‘Day Zero’, the long-feared time when the city will run out of fresh water, and the taps are turned off

Know for sun, surfing and tourism, three years of drought and increasing consumption by a growing population, has left the South African bay city of four million people with less than 90 days until the ominous sounding ‘Day Zero’, the colloquial shorthand for when Cape Town’s reservoirs and wells are depleted.

According to the local government, if residents and visitors don’t dramatically cut their water usage, the taps of Cape Town will run completely dry on 22 April. The specific date is recalculated every week based on current reservoir capacity and daily consumption, and was recently moved up by Mayor Patricia De Lille from 29 April.

‘We have to change our relationship with water,’ said De Lille, who according to accounts currently spends 70 per cent of her working day dealing with the crisis. ‘We have to plan for being permanently in a drought-stricken area.’

Of course, Cape Town won’t literally run dry, limited water rationing is already in place and residents are being urged to use no more than 87 litres (19 gallons) a day. But the city authorities have decided the situation is so dire that once the dams reach 13.5 per cent capacity, municipal water supply will be turned off for all but essential services, such as hospitals.

Pranav Bhatt cc flickr

On top of this drastic measure, Cape Town Municipality Water and Sanitation Department has issued an eclectic range of water saving advice, which includes: to collect shower, bath and basin water and re-use it to flush your toilet, or for garden and vehicle cleaning; only to flush when necessary; and to fit taps with aerators or restrictors to reduce flow to no more than six litres per minute.

Despite the seeming urgency of Cape Town’s water crisis, in global terms this is not an unprecedented phenomenon. In 2015 NASA’s GRACE satellites produced data showing that more than half of Earth’s 37 largest aquifers (underground stores from which groundwater can be extracted using a well) are being depleted.

Graphs showing the groundwater depletion and recharge in millimeters per year. a) shows aquifier usage/withdrawl data. b) shows the satellite estimates of aquifier depletion and recharge. Note: areas with a positive value are recharged and theoretically should not be in danger of depletion. (Image: Water Resource Research, AGU Journal 14/07/15)

The researchers used the GRACE satellites to take precise measurements of the world’s groundwater aquifers and detected subtle changes in the Earth’s gravitational pull, noting where the heavier weight of water exerted a greater pull on the orbiting spacecraft. The study ran from 2003 to 2013 and found that in 21 of the world’s largest aquifers, more water was removed than replaced during the decade.

What’s even more worrying, in the context of Cape Town’s imminent crisis, is that according to NASA data from 2015, South Africa’s largest aquifer in the Karoo Basin was not one of the 21, and Cape Town was not among the regions most in danger of freshwater depletion. Which suggests that if Cape Town does become the first major city in the world to run out of water, it might just be the beginning of a larger trend.

As Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the Washington Post at the time, ‘The situation is quite critical, the water table is dropping all over the world. There’s not an infinite supply of water.’

red line


Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our free weekly newsletter!

red line

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.


Subscribe to Geographical!

University of Winchester


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...


Biosphere 2 was one of the most ambitious experiments in…


High-quality, affordable drones can revolutionise the way that landscape and…


Benjamin Hennig charts the impact of volcanoes on nearby human…


A volunteer-led digital mapping project is at the heart of…


As the planet urbanises, attention is turning towards the most…


Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many…


A rising number of cruise ships and their ‘overlooked’ diesel…


Benjamin Hennig charts the growth and impact of the world’s…


Long-term studies reveal the Sahara desert has expanded substantially over…


South America’s wealthiest economy is at a crossroads between environmental…


The European Court of Justice finds the logging of a…


In this extract from his new book, Tides, mountain climber…


New data from the World Health Organization reveals that nine…


In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan,…


Benjamin Hennig maps out the global production and distribution levels…


Millions of Americans are living in areas at high-risk of…


New interactive maps combine precipitation and temperature to show climate…


Public transport in India could be on the verge of…


To retrace the route of the fur voyageurs on the waterways…


IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference: Alberta host dresses non-renewable…