South Africa – 22 March 2018

Day Zero may have been postponed, but Cape Town’s water crisis is far from over

by Lezel Molefe, Programme Director in South Africa

When Cape Town authorities announced that Day Zero – the dreaded moment when the city switched off the taps – had been postponed until next year, residents, like myself, were relieved.  The idea that a major, modern city, the second largest in South Africa, could experience a water crisis of such magnitude that it literally ran dry, had been a chilling one; the prospect of queuing for daily water rations thoroughly bizarre to anyone with a modern attitude to water – you turn on the tap and there it is, like magic.  But after the relief, came the realisation that, political manoeuvring aside, nothing has actually changed.

Cape Town’s worst drought in a century is still ongoing.  There has been no miraculous downpouring of rain or sudden breakthrough in water conservation technology.  Water restrictions continue to bite. For those of us living in Cape Town, the impact of the water crisis is still being felt.

At the SOS Children’s Village community in Cape Town, home to more than 120 children, our water allowance has been cut by almost 80% – to the exact amount the WHO says a person needs for short-term survival in an emergency.  We have had to place hourglasses in the showers of every family to remind children not to wash for more than two minutes each, and carers are cutting back on how often they wash the children’s clothes and clean their houses, making keeping up hygiene standards a daily challenge.

Rumours are spreading that what little water remains in the local dam is contaminated so families are boiling the tap water and buying bottled water for the children to drink, an expensive luxury they can ill-afford.  There are concerns that water scarcity could force the local children’s hospital to close its doors, and water-borne diseases like diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery have become a real threat to the children for the first time.

And then there are the food shortages. Local farmers remain worried that they won’t be able to grow enough fresh food to support the community.  A generous donation from a national supermarket chain has been a godsend, but it’s just a sticking plaster and not a solution to the problem.

Day Zero continues to loom in our future, and all we can do is prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.  So we are digging boreholes, installing water tanks and teaching the children how to conserve water.

It would be comforting to think that Cape Town’s water crisis is an aberration, but my work has taught me better.  Climate change is resulting in more frequent and severe weather events like droughts and floods, and it is children who are being impacted the most.  The disease, poverty, displacement and loss of life which accompany such emergencies are all factors contributing to children losing parental care.

For those of us who have dedicated our lives to protecting vulnerable children this is a worrying new global trend. And so, this World Water Day, as I work to protect the children under my care from the effects of climate change, I also fear for the futures of millions of other children whose own climate disaster is yet to come.

Lezel Molefe is Programme Director of the SOS Children’s Village in Cape Town, South Africa, a sister organisation of SOS Children’s Villages UK – part of the world’s largest charity caring for unsupported children.