The world's first city at risk of running out of water could shut off the taps in June -- and aerial photos show how dire the situation is

A beloved coastal city on the southern tip of Africa is just months away from running out of fresh water.

Cape Town is rapidly draining its remaining water resources, and soon its biggest dam, the Theewatersklooof, will be bone dry.

Some residents have started coming up with new ways to meet their water needs as the region struggles through its third year of drought. Many who can afford to do so have started digging private backyard wells. Others are carrying jugs to local breweries, where beer-makers have begun to share the spring water they normally use to make more potent drinks.

Those efforts seem to be working, at least a little. The city recently pushed back it’s “Day Zero” target from April to May, and then again from May to June, which means the roughly 4 million Capetonians will have another two months of running water before the city’s reservoirs get so low that most taps will be shut off.

But the dams are still draining, and with no substantial rainfall in the forecast, time is running out. This batch of aerial photos shows how the crisis has unfolded.

The Theewaterskloof dam is Cape Town’s largest. In 2011, it was full of water and rimmed with greenery.

But by 2015, when the drought was getting underway, patches of land around the dam were beginning to brown.

NASA says just 325 millimetres of rain fell that year, much less than the 515 the area normally gets.

By 2016, annual rain totals were even lower than normal, and the shoreline of the dam was visibly receding on all sides.

That year, the region recorded 221 millimetres, less than half of what was expected. By 2017, the Cape Town airport recorded less than 160 mm of annual rain. Hydrologist Piotr Wolski from the University of Cape Town calculated that a two-year string of dryness this severe should only happen once every 1,150 years.

The dam isn’t just dry because there’s been so little rain. Cape Town’s population has also been booming as more South Africans move from the country to the city.

Source: United Nations

The dam also quenches lots of farmland in the area.

The region’s pear and apple trees yield hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of fruit every year, but they have also been taking lots of water from the dam, NPR reports.

Long-range forecasters have lamented that they can’t predict what rainfall will be like anymore on the cape, since climate change has rendered the South African Weather Service’s historical models useless.

Officials predict Cape Town residents may have to start lining up to get daily rations of 25 litres of water as early as June 4 if the water levels keep dropping.

Photo: Morgana Wingard/ Getty Images.

Residents and visitors to the cape are being urged to use only 50 litres of tap water a day. By comparison, the USGS estimates that Americans use at least six times that amount on average, each draining 300 litres (80 gallons) of tap water every day.

In January, the city said the level at the Theewaterskloof Dam had reached 13% full.

The Theewaterskloof Dam, which has less than 20% of it’s water capacity, near Villiersdorp, about 108km from Cape Town. Photo: Rodger Bosch/ AFP/ Getty Images)

And the water isn’t rising.

As the dam continued to recede, the city began reducing the pressure and amount of water that comes out of faucets around town. It also installed daily water cutoff devices on the taps of homeowners who used too much water.

Source: City of Cape Town

This is where the water stood on January 17. Roughly a month after this photo was taken, on February 13, the city said the dam was creeping even lower, at just 11.8% full.

Source: City of Cape Town

While 11.8% may sound ok, the last 10% of a dam’s water is extremely difficult to use.

Source: City of Cape Town

The South African Weather Service predicts the next few months, which should be the beginning of rainy season on the cape, are going to be dry. NASA grayed out this image of the Theewaterskloof dam to show how dramatically low the water levels are.

Source: South African Weather Service / NASA

Roughly 10 million tourists visited Cape Town in 2017. But Enver Duminy, CEO of Cape Town Tourism, told Reuters that the drought is already having an impact on this year’s numbers.


For example, the Global Sourcing Association, a London-based non-profit, has postponed a March conference in Cape Town,Reuters reported. The group said it’s pushing the event to later in the year and hoping the drought situation will improve by then.

But with residents lining up at midnight to fetch water and city water resources hovering around 25% capacity, it’s still unclear what a dehydrated future might look like on the cape.

This story has been updated to reflect the latest timeline for Day Zero.

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