Day Zero

What happens when the taps run dry?

by Chris Packs

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published February 9, 2018

Last week, in the Cape Town suburb of Newlands, a fight broke out on a typically quiet cul-de-sac. The instigator, who was ultimately arrested, had been waiting in line at a local water station for their daily ration of 25 liters of water when tensions flared. These stations, now guarded 24 hours a day by police, have come under increasing strain as Cape Town gears up for what local officials have dubbed “Day Zero.” Set to occur sometime in May, Day Zero refers to the point at which Cape Town’s reservoir system will fall below 13.5 percent capacity, triggering a water crisis management plan that will shut down taps and, in their place, establish 200 water stations scattered around the city. “Water will still be supplied to hospitals, clinics, ‘essential services,’ and standpipes in informal settlements,” Citylab reports. 

Day Zero may sound like a single apocalyptic event, but it is not the beginning nor is it the end of South Africa’s water troubles. The South African Weather Service, for example, cited the long history of research that has anticipated Day Zero for decades: “Blaming the weather‚ or climate and the weather service is a cop-out for policy inaction and ineptitude in the implementation of multidisciplinary research and reports that have long pointed to the water challenge in the country‚ the Western Cape and in Cape Town.” Indeed, at least in public discourse, Cape Town was first considered at significant risk of water scarcity in 1990, when the Cape Times published an article arguing that Cape Town “will run out of water in 17 years.” It thus rings hollow when JP Smith, member of the city's mayoral committee, is quoted saying “it would be catastrophic if we end up having to collect water at [collection points] ... We must not think that it is a viable solution for long. It is, at best, an emergency solution, and should be avoided at all costs.” Water scarcity has been a chronic problem for years.

Government mismanagement of resources is especially politicized in Cape Town, which is governed by the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s center-right opposition. The DA is leading the fight to #DefeatDayZero, and has been accusing the African National Congress (ANC) of neglecting Cape Town’s ecological precarity at the national level. In response, the ANC decried the 'sensationalist' rhetoric surrounding the dire situation and any attempts to profit off it politically, calling it “a DA invention that translates to nothing more than an unnecessary tool of rattling residents on a pseudo-judgment day rhetoric.” The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), South Africa’s revolutionary socialist party, has similarly criticized the DA: “Never can we as EFF allow that a Constitutional right, like the provisioning of clean water, be allowed to settle political scores within the Democratic Alliance, or be violated because of lazy thinking.”

Beyond political fragmentation and this escalating blame game, structural environmental, racial, and class forces are driving this crisis. Cape Town has suffered from a historic, once-a-millenium drought for nearly three years. Since 1995, Cape Town’s population has grown by 79 percent, while water storage only increased by 15 percent, according to the Guardian. As the population has grown, water has not been distributed equally: a July exposé from GroundUp, a South African news outlet, shows that 65 percent of the city’s water went to houses (half of that percentage used for nonessential purposes), while only 3.6 percent went to underfunded and crowded informal settlements. 

“Apartheid may have ended 20 years ago, but here in Cape Town the sense of apartness remains as strong as ever,” writes Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian. “After decades of enforced segregation, the feeling of division is permanently carved into the city's urban form, the physical legacy of a plan that was calculatedly designed to separate poor blacks from rich whites.” Indeed, spatial segregation remains a controversial living legacy of South Africa’s apartheid government, which lost power to the ANC in 1994. “Cape Town was conceived with a white-only centre, surrounded by contained settlements for the black and coloured labour forces,” writes CityLab. Despite a number of successful affirmative action programs, like Nelson Mandela’s Reconstruction and Development Programme—which built millions of free homes for working class (particularly non-white) South Africans—informal settlements and townships surrounding major cities (originally all-white metropolises) remain crowded, racially homogenous, and economically disadvantaged. For example, 55 percent of Black adults lived in townships where more than 40 percent of residents are working-class, according to a 2007 report by FutureFact. These areas are hit hardest by Day Zero, and have historically received inadequate amounts of water. As EFF leader Julius Malema writes, “Black people have been living without water for a very long time. They are still without water today. They don’t know what is Day Zero because they’ve never had day one in their lives.”

While the drought persists and Cape Town increasingly looks like it will be the world’s first major city to run out of water, shortages are straining the city’s economic and social fabric. Day Zero may sound like an equalizing, universal phenomenon, assuming that everyone in Cape Town will bear the responsibility for the drastically reduced water usage and a lack of tap water. However, the drought has already aggravated the racial and class inequalities that determine how water is distributed in Cape Town. This means that working-class communities of color will shoulder the burden of resource depletion in a world devastated by climate change.


Water scarcity is a relatively recent phenomenon. Large-scale water shortages first appeared in the 19th century, but they did not become a global threat until the last decade or so, according to Matti Kummu of Aalto University in Finland. “Water shortage increased extremely rapidly from 1960 onward, with the proportion of the global population living under chronic water shortage increasing from nine percent, or 280 million people, in 1960 to 35 percent (2,300 million) in 2005,” Kummu told the Environmental Research Lab. This is largely a result of exponential population growth (especially in areas with already strained water access) and erratic weather patterns brought on by climate change. 

As the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) notes, accelerating droughts, deforestation, pollution, and wasteful water consumption have exacerbated our world’s water crisis, welcoming a rhetoric of panic and apocalypse. “Fresh water is overtaking oil as the scarcest critical resource. In the same way, oil gave a shape to geopolitics and the environment and our daily lives in the 20th century, water is starting to do so in the 21st century,” writes Steven Solomon, author of Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization. The tendency of Western media outlets ranging from Al Jazeera to the Huffington Post to sensationalize distress has resulted in floods of images of the “Age of Scarcity” or the “Age of Thirst.” While water scarcity remains a pressing issue, media fantasies of Hunger Games-esque “water wars” undercut the need for global solidarity in a world of unequal access.

Sensationalism aside, water scarcity does represent the largest global risk over the next decade, according to a 2015 World Economic Forum (WEF) report. The report states that one-third of the world’s population now dwells in “water-stressed areas,” and nearly a billion people live without access to safe drinking water. Water scarcity not only threatens drinking water, but also agriculture (particularly California and India, whose economies and food sources depend on large-scale irrigation), energy (with more water needed to produce electricity), geological integrity (Jakarta sunk four meters in a decade from overdrawing water), and conflict (e.g. how drought has intensified the Syrian civil war). WEF has posited that because the crisis affects everyone, water scarcity will likely bring the world together. But water scarcity varies drastically in impact based on a country’s wealth, geographic location, and class systems. 

Such international inequalities related to water scarcity play out acutely in Cape Town, where deep-seated class disparities dictate who has access to water. Formally, the successful implementation and enforcement of the city’s water management plan would result in a democratization of access across all races and classes. After Day Zero, each resident would be limited to 50 liters a day—roughly the amount a standard washing machine uses in one cycle—and everyone would wait in line to receive their daily rations. To foster this sense of togetherness, online water consumption maps allow neighbors to monitor each other's usage, maintaining discipline through shame. Similarly, as the Guardian reports, some sports clubs (though hardly economically diverse institutions) have installed buzzers on their showers in order to “embarrass people who linger under the water for more than two minutes.”

As each day passes, the potential for cross-class solidarity proves increasingly unlikely, as rich Capetonians are both permitted and encouraged to sustain a privileged class consciousness that is not feasible for the poor. Already, some Capetonians have begun to dig private boreholes—a water collecting technique akin to wells––in their backyards, according to the Guardian. Similarly, reminiscent of Harare (Zimbabwe’s capital which has suffered from water shortages for years), middle and upper class residents have scrambled to buy thousands of liters of disposable water bottles, an option out of reach for many. “You go to the shops and see people buying 20 bottles of water. It’s a ridiculous increase of disposable plastic,” David Gwynne-Evans, a local botanist, told the Guardian. Contentious local reports have found that some wealthy residents have continued to water their lawns and fill up their swimming pools, despite the current 87 liter per-day limit. Poor Capetonians are bearing the brunt of water scarcity. For those who live in townships and informal settlements, Day Zero restrictions—compounded by poverty, lack of sanitation, and food insecurity—pose “an existential threat … As it is with every crisis everywhere, poor people will suffer the most,” writes Citylab. 

Broader trends of economic inequality beyond segregation exacerbate the water crisis and allow rich South Africans to continue to exploit ecological resources at the cost of the working class. This exploitation is most evident in the country's agricultural industry, which uses vast amounts of water and was built along sharp racial boundaries. In fact, undoing agricultural hierarchies has been one of the most contentious elements of post-apartheid racial conflict, as historically exploitative and violent white farmers have maintained a tenuous grip on much of the arable land in South Africa. This has resulted in decades of resistance by guerrilla forces staging attacks on (disproportionately white) farm-owners across the countryside. Some analyses have placed the cause of farm attacks on robbery fueled by economic inequality, a lack of government oversight, and the disbandment of the South African Commando System, which protected farmers until 2003. Meanwhile, leftist leaders of the ANC and EFF, such as Julius Malema, have forged campaigns around their deep criticism, and vilification, of white farmers, which some international NGOs have deemed an incitement of ethnic violence. The controversy and divisiveness of this issue intensified once more in Fall 2017, when #BlackMonday protesters demonstrated on behalf of murdered (particularly white) farmers, while simultaneously brandishing the apartheid flag and other racist symbols. A 2013 report from Africa Check illustrates the statistical ambiguity of measuring farm and racially motivated murders, and reveals that white Afrikaners are the least likely race group to be murdered, despite the current uproar and claims that they are being killed “like flies.”

These racial dynamics, solidified and complicated by histories of apartheid, colonialism, and material inequality, play a central yet underreported role in Cape Town’s water crisis. Agricultural irrigation alone accounts for around 60 percent of water usage in South Africa, over twice as much as municipalities, according to 2013 statistics from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. In light of the racial implications of water-intensive agricultural production, Day Zero takes on new dimensions as a symptom of an economic system that benefits the wealthy and exploits the larger population––to the point of turning off their taps. Cape Town resident David Gwynne-Evans, in response to expanded vineyard operations during the drought, told the Guardian, “Wine is a luxury. We shouldn’t be using water for that, yet even now new vineyards are opening.” The question remains as to whether vineyards will cut back production in the future.

As Day Zero approaches, several other questions also remain unanswered. For one, where will the 200 water distributions stations be located, and how will they map in relation to the country’s entrenched race and class lines? Additionally, although city officials have deliberately downplayed their deployment of military and police personnel (to guard water distribution centres, reservoirs, and other strategic areas), the possibility of state intervention and over-policing in low-income communities remains, especially considering that, according to the Guardian, the city will allocate its military forces according to a given area’s “past history of protest or gang activity.” A similar situation occurred during São Paulo’s 2015 water shortage, in which military leaders, fearing social upheaval, secretly plotted plans to take control of water resources. While this may not occur in Cape Town, the spectre of state repression through resource scarcity management looms.


No major city like Cape Town has ever resorted to cutting municipal supplies before, and this event signals a critical moment in our climate history. In the midst of the Western media frenzy around Cape Town’s water shortage, which feeds into popular panic, local and international climate leaders are scrambling to negotiate how to best prevent Day Zero. Meanwhile, some less sensationalist stories are not getting told––specifically, the impact of South Africa’s racial divides on water distribution, and the smaller moments of local resilience and mobilization. For instance, “the small town of Stellenbosch, which is part of the greater Cape Town area, has developed local groundwater resources, and has been so successful in reducing its water consumption levels that it will disconnect from the main City of Cape Town water supply system in April,” Seth Schultz, Director of Science & Innovation at C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, told the Independent. “The residents of Stellenbosch (some 156,000 people across all income groups) do not face Day Zero as a result of the town's proactive approach, but are obviously still under severe water restrictions.”  

In this sense, perhaps Cape Town, with the help of the international attention it is receiving, could serve as a broader model for global scarcity solidarity and mobilization. After all, across the world, 845 million people already lack access to clean water, in ways that expose the extreme racial, social, and political inequality built into the continual battle for resources in a world wracked by climate change.

At the time of publication, experts estimate that Day Zero will occur on May, 11, 2018.

Chris Packs B’20 forgot to watch Day Zero.