Day Zero For Cape Town is Around the Corner

By Morgan Lear

By mid-July of 2018, the city of Cape Town, South Africa is projected to run out of water leaving its citizens in short supply of a life necessity. In one of Africa’s most affluent cities with a population of four million the citizens of Cape Town “may have to stand in line surrounded by armed guards to collect rations” of water.[1] While Cape Town citizens are well aware of the Day Zero, many are not taking the necessary precautions regarding water conservation.[2] The city and provincial government has requested that citizens restrict their water usage to 50 liters per day, which is less than one sixth of what Americans use per day. Yet, some are saying the Cape Town citizens have a sense of entitlement to use and consume the water as they please, exacerbating the issue.[3] This has turned Day Zero from an innocuous fear to an impending doom. When the water in the six-dam reservoir system, the main water supply for Cape town, falls below 13.5% of capacity, the government will implement emergency services and turn off water taps.[4]  Cape Town has been able to push back Day Zero a couple months from the initial projections, however, it still must prepare for this day to come. So, what is the solution? Stealing water?

            Before diving into possible legal issues that may arise in Cape Town, it is important to look at the events that caused this crisis. As many environmentalists have emphasized over the years, climate change has negatively affected the world.[5] The earth has become hotter, and droughts have become more common. Cape Town, in particular, was acutely aware of possible water shortages. As early as 2007, the national department of Water and Sanitation “issued a warning about Cape Town’s water supply, saying the city would need new water sources by 2015.”[6] And in 2014, Cape Town experienced the beginning of a three-year drought. This drought caused the reservoirs that were full in 2014 to drop to 26% today.[7] Additionally, Cape Town has experienced and increase in population, which has increased water consumption. To compound the environmental and economic issues, critics believe that the government has made missteps over the years that has contributed to the water crisis.[8] Some say that the government’s past reactions were based on a false premise that the drought would be short-term and failed to plan for something more drastic.[9]

Cape Town government has identified four risks regarding this water crisis: “water shortages, sanitation failures, disease outbreaks and anarchy due to competition for scarce resources.”[10] One of these risks has already manifested. On February 1, 2018, “two people were caught red-handed in Muldersdrfit allegedly trying to fill tankers of water to drive down to the Western Cape.”[11] The water tanks that the offenders attempted to steal were situated in Mogal City, and “was there to serve the poor in the area who do not have access to running water.”[12] According to witnesses, this was not the first time that the water tank trucks were taken unauthorized.[13] Cape Town citizens have gotten increasingly worried about their city’s future. Some have taken alternative measures to guarantee their water supply.[14] One resident “spent R25,000 from his own pocket to organize the spring with the construction of multiple access points and provision of uniforms for the water carriers.”[15] While this resident used his money to help supply water to residents, others have looked toward more self-serving ways to utilize the water.

Other than ramp up water conservation regulations, Cape Town has also looked into increasing the surveillance and punishment for stealing water.[16] Environmental Management Inspectors, also known as the Green Scorpions have monitored the increase of water theft and “increased law enforcement after illegal connections and dams [were] discovered.”[17] But is that the solution? In a crisis it is extremely important to avoid anarchy, however, arresting people for attempting to salvage a necessary life resource can also cause unrest among the community. This is a delicate situation that requires not only the help of the provincial government, but also the national government. In order the decrease the amount of water theft, the people of Cape Town must be given reassurance that they will have access to water. 


[1] Craig Welch, Why Cape Town Is Running Out of Water, and Who’s Next, Mar. 5, 2018,

[2] See id.

[3] Id.

[4] Johnathan Watts, Cape Town faces Day Zero: what happens when the city turns off the taps? (Feb. 3, 2018 3:00 PM),

[5] Craig Welch, Why Cape Town Is Running Out of Water, and Who’s Next (Mar. 5, 2018),

[6] David Olivier, Cape Town’s water crisis: driven by politics more than drought (Dec. 12, 2017 9:57 AM),

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Johnathan Watts, Cape Town faces Day Zero: what happens when the city turns off the taps? (Feb. 3, 2018 3:00 PM),

[11] Jenni Evans, 2 bust for allegedly trying to smuggle water to Western Cape illegally (Feb. 1, 2018 11:24 AM),

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] See Johnathan Watts, supra note 4.

[15] Id.

[16] Rusana Philander, #WaterCrisis: Green Scorpions to monitor ‘water theft’ (Oct. 6, 2017),

[17] Id.