With Cape Town in danger of running out of water and various other cities throughout the country contending with water crises of their own, the South African government declared the droughts affecting the country a national disaster on Tuesday.
The updated designation recognizes the severity of the drought and forces the federal government to act in coordination with the dehydrated cities and provinces. The government has already pledged to devote millions of dollars toward water solutions.
Local leaders first stepped up the call for a national designation in January.
"The reason that I think it would be useful to declare a national state of disaster is because then everything is in place for anything that we need to do that may require us to shortcut certain systems," Western Cape Premier Helen Zille said in January.
Zille said the crisis required an all-hands-on-deck approach because no major city has ever faced the prospect of running out of water.
“You can't practice,” Zille said. “A lot of things are going to be entirely unforeseen; we have to have everything in place. We can't leave a single stone unturned to ensure that cooperation can happen, that decisions can be taken very quickly and unconventionally if we need to.”
Years of severe drought have threatened the water supply for millions of South Africans, but various water crises pose a daily struggle for roughly 2 billion people around the world who lack access to clean water because of droughts, conflicts, and contamination.
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But the crisis in Cape Town is a stark look at an increasingly dry future.
Without drastic behavior change by Cape Town residents, businesses, and industries, the municipal dam’s water levels will fall below 13.5%, forcing the Cape Town government to turn off taps around the city on what the city’s water department has labeled Day Zero.
On Tuesday, Cape Town pushed Day Zero back to June 4 because residents and the agriculture industry have limited their consumption in recent weeks since the city began urging residents to use less than 50 liters of water each day. Day Zero had last been set for May 11.
Read More: Cape Town Is About to Run Out of Water
After June 4, water will still flow at hospitals, health clinics, and other essential service providers, but individual residents will have to wait on line at 200 community taps to receive a 25-liter daily water ration.
While the restrictions would be a serious disruption for many Cape Town residents, especially in wealthier suburban zones, about a million poor Capetonians in informal settlements already face water rationing, Cape Town University professor Kirsty Carden told Global Citizen
“The average water use in informal settlements is currently around 40 litres per person per day,” Carden said. “So [low-income residents of informal settlements] are not being rationed any further than what they are using.”