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Why Is Cape Town Running Out of Water?

Cape Town, South Africa, is a busy city with a population of 433,700 people. It's also a popular tourist destination. And—it's about to run out of water. Day Zero, the day when the wells are expected to completely dry up, is predicted to arrive sometime in July 2018.

a line of water faucets with drips coming out of one

 How did this happen? How did a modern city get this close to the brink of running out of a renewable resource?

While water is considered a renewable resource, there is not an endless source of water. The amount of water on planet Earth is finite, which means there's always a set amount. The water that traveled through the water cycle when dinosaurs were alive is the same water that travels through the water cycle today. But while water can't disappear, it can flow more in some areas than other. Dry regions that don't get much precipitation need to conserve water, otherwise it can run out. That's what's happening in Cape Town.

One reason for the extreme lack of water there is drought. Drought is a natural occurrence for many regions—much of the state of California has been in a drought for years. Have you ever had to take super short showers and only water your garden at certain times? Those are steps communities take to conserve water during dry times. Once the rainy season comes and the wells fill back up with precipitation, showers get longer and gardens grow lusher.

Cape Town is no stranger to drought. But usually, dry years are followed by wet years when the dams refill and the rivers flow fast once more. The current drought has lasted more than three years, the longest severe dry spell in the city's history. Take a look at this graph from Climate Systems Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town.

A line graph showing yearly rainfall in Cape Town

The line for 2017 is far below average.

Obviously, water is in short supply. But why has the drought lasted so long and been so severe?

Scientists are finding that climate change is playing a role in changing the weather patterns around the world, including storms of greater frequency and intensity and dry spells that last longer. People who are forced to move because of weather-related disasters are often referred to climate refugees or environment migrants. In the United States, parts of Louisiana, Texas, and California have all seen residents relocated due to weather-related problems.

And now, the same thing is happening in Cape Town. People who can afford to leave (and have someplace to go) have left the area for wetter places where water isn't as much of a concern.

It's possible that governmental policy has also played a role in making the water crisis in Cape Town worse than it might have been. Some say the government could have enacted measure to conserve water much sooner they did, and that there were very little funds available to help communities deal with the repercussions of running out of water. They were slow to grasp the severity of the situation, and now the situation is even more severe. This could be a lesson for the rest of the world as climate change becomes a bigger and bigger problem.

So what will happen on Day Zero when Cape Town is out of water? As a blogger at the Climate Systems Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town writes, residents will join the 240 million people in Africa who already have to fetch their water with buckets. While Cape Town is the first modern city to go completely dry, there are rural villages and smaller towns across the world who have gone without running water in their homes, who have had to trek miles to a water source carrying containers for many years. While it will feel like a shock to those who have had the luxury of plentiful water, many people around the world will recognize the disaster as a familiar way of life.

You can learn more about natural resources in the Nomad Press book Explore Natural Resources!

 cover of Explore Natural Resources book


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