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This disappearing Cape Town reservoir is a preview of climate nightmares to come

Just three years of drought have dried Cape Town’s biggest reservoir to just 13 percent capacity

Theewaterskloof Dam—Cape Town’s largest reservoir, which provides roughly half of the city’s water — has dried to just 13 percent capacity after three years of drought.
Image: NASA Earth Observatory

In less than 100 days, Cape Town — a South African city of about 4 million people — could run out of water, in what officials call “Day Zero.” A view of the crisis from space shows the city’s massive reservoirs drying up after just three years of drought — a preview of the nightmares climate change could bring, unfolding right now.

Cape Town’s water shortage isn’t just because of climate change — although that certainly could be making the drought worse, experts say. Poor management of the city’s water system, which relies almost entirely on rainfall, also contributed to the growing crisis. But as fossil fuel emissions continue to drive up global temperatures, drought risk is expected rise in places like southwestern Africa and California. The recent five-year drought in California also depleted reservoirs and led to official bans on wasteful water use.

Cape Town relies on six main reservoirs for its drinking water; together these reservoirs can store 230 billion gallons (about 870,000 megaliters) of water. After back-to-back years of severe drought, these reservoirs hold just 26 percent of that total — a level that is likely to continue dropping until the rainy season starts in May. The time lapse, captured by the Landsat-8 satellite and published by NASA’s Earth Observatory, shows Cape Town’s largest reservoir, Theewaterskloof Dam, drying to just 13 percent capacity.

Residents have been urged to limit their water use, and today, Cape Town officials issued even more stringent restrictions, limiting each person to just 13 gallons (50 liters) of water per day. (For scale, the average person in the US uses 80 to 100 gallons, roughly 300–380 liters, of water daily.) Water guzzlers who go over that limit might have to pay for a device that limits the water that comes out their taps, and could also be on the hook for fines of up to about $850.

The city also plans to find new water sources — by tapping groundwater, building desalination plants, and turning to recycled wastewater, according to The LA Times. Still, most of these projects are hitting delays, and not likely to prevent Day Zero when water levels in the reservoirs drop to just 13.5 percent capacity. That could come as soon as April, when residential taps will turn off and people will have to collect rations of just 6.6 gallons (25 liters) of water per day.

It’s a terrible warning to places like California that the time to start modernizing aging water infrastructure is before a crisis — not during one. You only have to watch that reservoir drying to a puddle to see why.