Waiting for Day Zero, and the Supreme Court’s water wars decision

From Instagram: opensocietyfoundationsResidents line up to refill water bottles at a spring near a brewery in Cape Town, South Africa, on January 31, 2018.
Earlier this year, government officials in Cape Town announced that “Day Zero”—the day when four million people’s water taps would be turned off, and when citywide rationing would begin—was near. Photographer Morgana Wingard (@morganawingard) documented the weeks that followed, which may offer a grim preview of how climate change will increase water scarcity on a global scale.

By Tom Baxter

As we await the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on our water war with Florida, there’s good news from a long distance, along with some lessons for us. It’s been raining a lot in Cape Town.

One of the most beautiful places in the world has for four years been in the grip of a drought so severe that officials last year announced that April 21 of this year would be Day Zero. On that day — the precise date has shifted several times, like the Atomic Clock — water for most of the South African city ouf would be cut off and individuals would be limited to a daily ration of about seven gallons at public collection points.

Day Zero has since been moved back to 2019. Heavier rainfall this year was crucial to the easing of the water crisis, but an energetic conservation campaign spurred by the looming cut-off also played a big role. Since the crisis has eased, local officials have been criticized for overplaying their hand with the warning, but defenders of Day Zero say it was the only way to get people to at last start catching their shower water in buckets and flushing once a day.

“It was the most talked about thing in Cape Town for months when it needed to be,” Priya Reddy, the city’s communication director, said. “It was not a pretty solution, but it was not a pretty problem.

No matter how the high court rules in the current case involving Georgia, Cape Town should be studied as an example of what happens when the pretty solutions no longer work.

Cape Town is a place of stark economic disparities, and a system like that announced for Day Zero would have had explosive social consequences. The experience which has been gained in this crisis doesn’t ease those disparities. Those who can afford it have begun sinking wells and erecting tanks to catch rainwater. The poor, particularly the rural migrants who have streamed into the city over past years, have no similar ability to prepare for the next crisis.

Cape Town not the only major city where strained water systems and rising populations could become a flashpoint, with repercussions for the rest of the world. The outlook for Sao Paulo and Jakarta looks ominous, and Barcelona went through a severe water crisis in 2008.

From Instagram: changeagentsaDear South Africa.
Let’s remember no matter where in SA we are, let’s never forget that water is a precious resource & the only way to avoid #DayZero is by significantly reducing consumption. It takes each individual’s personal action to #DefeatDayZero #SaveWater 💧#WaterIsLife#WaterWarriors
📷: @dekroonsteven

Atlanta’s occasional drought problems and the state’s ongoing skirmishes with its neighbors over the river systems they share might not seem to be at the seven-gallon-a-day level of concern. But Day Zero can come upon us in a variety of ways.

On Monday the Union of Concerned Scientists released a study which matched its estimates with data from the online real estate company Zillow to determine how real estate values in the 23 coastal states might be affected by rising sea levels. Over the next 30 years, the life of a typical home loan, the study estimated that more than 300,000 homes could be affected by chronic flooding. In a state-by-state breakdown, the study estimated that over this period, some 6,000 homes in Georgia could be affected.

That’s the good news. Georgia, benefiting from the curvature of its coast, fares much better than Florida, where over the same period it’s estimated that 64,000 homes will be affected by chronic flooding. Florida’s growth rate is currently fourth in the country, which means there will be many more people over the next 30 years who may have to find somewhere else to go, and that could strain the Atlanta region’s water supply past the point of pretty solutions.

Early indications are the high court will either rule in Georgia’s favor or punt, but the court’s ruling, expected any day now, is only the latest round in a very long and tangled dispute over water use which could be further complicated by environmental change.

With good luck and great effort, Cape Town has put off its Day Zero, if only for a year. But more Day Zeros loom for all of us.


Featured photo: From Instagram opensocietyfoundations People transport jugs of water from a natural spring in Cape Town, South Africa, on January 31, 2018. Earlier this year, government officials in Cape Town announced that “Day Zero”—the day when four million people’s water taps would be turned off, and when citywide rationing would begin—was near. Photographer Morgana Wingard (@morganawingard) documented the weeks that followed, which may offer a grim preview of how climate change will increase water scarcity on a global scale.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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