The people of Cape Town are running out of water—and they’re not alone

The whole world is drying up.
Satellite image of the Sundarban mangrove forest in Bangladesh.
A satellite image of the Sundarbans reveals complex waterways draining into the Bay of Bengal. NASA Earth Observatory
A graphic showing how the water level in a Cape Town reservoir have dropped over the last three years.
Cape Town’s water reservoirs are drying up. NASA Earth Observatory

Day Zero: that’s the ominous label officials in Cape Town have bestowed on the day that water will run out. A three year drought in the region drained reservoirs faster than expected. They were full at the start of 2014, but estimates from the end of January 2018 show that water levels are now at 26 percent of capacity. When the level drops to 13.5 percent, officials plan to shut off pipes and start controlling water distribution to residents. Cape Town’s residents will receive a daily ration of 25 liters of water—the average American, by contrast, uses fifteen times as much per day. A black market is sure to emerge, but the city’s poorest, who have long been bearing the brunt of this crisis, will probably not be able to afford the exorbitant prices.

When Day Zero will arrive is anyone’s guess. It’s been pushed back several times already, as water conservation efforts have proved successful, according to local news reports—it might not even hit until 2019 if usage remains low.

But while conservation efforts may stave off the inevitable, there’s one thing city planners and water management can’t predict: when it will rain again. Until the drought is over, Cape Town will remain on the brink of an environmental and public health disaster. But the South African city is just one of many localities across the globe to face extreme water shortages in recent years—and one of many more to come. The World Resources Institute recently crunched data on water consumption and projected climate patterns, and predicts that by 2040, most regions in the world will be facing some level of water stress, and 33 countries could face “extremely high” stress.

Cape Town is one of the most dire cases we’re seeing today. But across the globe, water troubles are already straining the lives of millions of people.


Disappearing Andean glaciers, increasingly rare rainfalls in the wet season, and a protracted drought dried up most of capital city La Paz’s drinking water in 2017. Mining operations have also had a hand in depleting the scarce resource. The predictions of what could happen in Cape Town have already come true in this city of almost two and a half million. Military-guarded trucks deliver meager rations of water, while contamination and protests wreak havoc on the daily lives of citizens. Conservation, rationing, and limiting industrial usage can only go so far if the rains don’t come soon.

A satellite image shows ancient water ways dug in the Moroccan desert.
Ancient water ways in the Moroccan desert used gravity to transport ground water without the need for pumps. NASA Earth Observatory


Blame watermelons for last year’s protests in drought-stricken Morocco. The North African nation’s agricultural exports—which mostly cater to out-of-season demands in the European market—make up a significant percentage of its GDP. Farmers had been overusing water resources during what may have been the country’s worst drought in 30 years to continue growing impractical, water-intensive crops, like watermelon. In October 2017, the government shut off water supplies in the rural town of Zagora in response to shortages. It’s a town where residents report that clean drinking water is hard to come by, even when the taps are running, and they quickly took to the streets in protest. While the town got an official apology from the Prime Minister, the government hasn’t done much to mitigate the problem or encourage conservation as the drought lingers on.


Three-quarters of the earth’s surface is covered in water, but most of it is undrinkable. In the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forests located in coastal Bangladesh, that paradox defines the daily struggles of villagers who have to search further and further for clean drinking water. As climate change intensifies, melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica causes sea water to rise. In the low-lying Sundarbans, that means salty sea water encroaches on groundwater and reservoirs, rendering it useless for human consumption. Mangrove trees can filter the salt as they take in water, but human kidneys have no such adaptation. You’ll die of dehydration if you drink too much salt water. The lack of freshwater drives climate refugees towards Dhaka, one of the most densely populated cities in the world. They may not get much relief in their new home—the city’s infrastructure can’t keep up with its ever-growing population, and millions of slum dwellers lack access to clean water.

Along a stretch of the Colorado River, patches of green agriculture pop against the dry dessert.
Patches of green agriculture pop up along the Colorado River’s path through the desert. NASA Earth Observatory

United States

To many people living in the U.S., clean drinking water seems so ubiquitous that one might not think twice about using two to five gallons a minute in the shower, or dumping hundreds of gallons onto a lush, green lawn in the summer. Conservation policies during droughts have helped, but oftentimes, water usage shoots up as soon as the drought conditions lessen, even though it would be wiser to save up the rainy day fund for the next severe drought cycle.

But the reality is that U.S. water access is far from equal. Climate change and extended droughts are slowly drying up the Colorado River, putting 30 million people in seven states in a precarious position. And in some low-income, rural communities across the nation, it doesn’t matter if climate change turns off the taps—there were never any to begin with. Unincorporated townships are often denied access to the water and sewer infrastructure of larger cities or towns. The community of Sandbranch, for example, sits right in the shadows of the Dallas’s skyscrapers. But residents haven’t had clean drinking water since gravel mining contamination in the 1950s. On Native American reservations, some 24,000 households don’t have running water, either.

But being connected to a municipal supply doesn’t always ensure clean drinking water. Residents of Flint, Michigan have been drinking bottled water since 2015, when elevated lead levels were detected in residential tap water—despite city officials’ insistence that the water was safe. Just this week, a new round of testing found traces of lead in water. Poor infrastructure, like climate change, will continue to exacerbate America’s water woes.