Day Zero: Blessing the Rains in South Africa

Meagan McNeely


In 2018, after years of below-average rainfall[1], the South African government announced the impending arrival of “Day Zero,” the day on which city tap water would be officially turned off.[2] The city of Cape Town, South Africa, had a population of four million residents in 2018.[3] The city prepared “two hundred emergency water stations;” each station was meant to serve twenty thousand residents.[4] In order to avert the impending crisis of Day Zero, the city of Cape Town implemented numerous water restrictions. These restrictions were largely successful; in May 2018, Day Zero was pushed back.[5] Now, in January of 2020, Day Zero serves as both a story of success and a grim reminder of the trials which lie ahead. With rapid climate change, political unrest, and unprecedented population growth, cities across the world should take note of South Africa’s initiatives to prevent future water crises.

After the initial announcement of Day Zero, Cape Town residents were asked to use only fifty liters of water per day.[6] For context, the typical American uses a minimum of three hundred liters per day; twenty-five liters equals roughly four minutes in the shower.[7] Households using more than the allotted fifty liters were fined or, in extreme cases, had a meter installed that automatically shut off their water.[8] It became illegal to fill a swimming pool with city water; instead, citizens often used their pools for emergency bathing and water supply.[9] Cafes began using paper cups and plates to eliminate the need for excessive dishwashing, and city-operated parks and golf courses were functionally abandoned.[10] By the time the reservoirs and dams were at a mere one-third of overall capacity, the fifty-liter restriction was less than the minimum amount recommended by the United Nations “for domestic water needs.”[11] With Day Zero hanging overhead, the permitted daily usage of water was to be reduced to no more than twenty-five liters per day.[12]

With the criminalization of typically simple tasks such as washing a vehicle, Cape Town residents became creative in their conservation efforts.[13] Showering over a bucket in order to catch and reuse water, flushing toilets once a day, and only washing clothing when absolutely necessary became common techniques to conserve water.[14] In spite of these efforts, “water trafficking” became an issue.[15] While illegal to actually charge for well or river water, traffickers could “charge for labor and transport.”[16]  This became a lucrative business, yet it remained in a “legal gray area.”[17]

The city of Cape Town also made concessions. Beginning with the cessation of watering municipal facilities such as public parks, the city also reduced water allocation to fruit farms.[18] While hospitals and other important civic structures maintained their water usage, Day Zero affected all residents, agriculturists, and hospitality workers.[19] The city allowed nighttime irrigation, implemented the reparation of infrastructure, and approved potential desalination construction.[20] City officials also took measures to reduce water pressure to minimize leakage and subsequent water loss.[21]

By August 2019, the dams in Cape Town were over eighty percent capacity.[22] Day Zero came and went.[23] Partially credited to long overdue rains, the conservation efforts of the city of Cape Town and its residents prevented the manifestation of a full crisis. Such efforts should act as a model to other world cities facing water shortages and potential crises.

Cities with large populations, such as Mexico City and Jakarta, are already having structural problems. One-fifth of Mexico City residents only have tap water for a few hours per week.[24] The city of Jakarta is essentially sinking due to the dire need to pull up ground water.[25] Australia voiced concerns, reporting that it may run out of water in approximately ten years.[26] Southern California experienced a five-year drought, causing agricultural issues and widespread fires.[27] These cities are not alone in this risk; many cities with “inadequate infrastructure” and unsanitary conditions could easily find themselves in a water crisis.[28] Further, political stability and the looming threat of rapid climate change make worldwide water famine a practical reality.[29]

Just as Day Zero came and went for South Africa, many large cities are likely to narrowly avoid the catastrophic consequences of simply not having enough water. Citizens of the world should begin making conservation efforts and become more aware of excessive usage. While climate change and political dynamics may play a role, the deciding factor in avoiding any crisis is the action of the people. It might not always rain, and the world must be prepared.

[1] Charlotte Edmond, Cape Town Almost Ran Out of Water. Here’s How it Averted the Crisis., World Economic Forum (Aug. 23, 2019),

[2] Craig Welch, Why Cape Town is Running Out of Water, and Who’s Next, Nat’l Geographic (Mar. 5, 2018),

[3] Christian Alexander, Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’ Water Crisis, One Year Later, City Lab (Apr. 21, 2019),

[4] Welch, supra note 2.

[5] Krista Mahr, How Cape Town Was Saved From Running Out of Water, Guardian (May 4, 2018, 8:04 AM),

[6] Welch, supra note 2.

[7] Welch, supra note 2.

[8] Mahr, supra note 5.

[9] Aryn Baker, What It’s Like to Live Through Cape Town’s Massive Water Crisis, Time, (last visited Jan. 21, 2020).

[10] Id.

[11] Baker, supra note 9.

[12] Id.

[13] Edmond, supra note 1.

[14] Mahr, supra note 5.

[15] Baker, supra note 9.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Mahr, supra note 5.dian

[19] Baker, supra note 9.

[20] Mahr, supra note 5.rdian

[21] Edmond, supra note 1.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Welch, supra note 2.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. (Information accurate as of the date this article was written; subsequent wildfires may affect this number.)

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

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