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Editorial: Day Zero

A communal tap runs in an informal settlement near Cape Town, South Africa, Jan. 23. While the city urges people to restrict water usage, many living in poor areas already have limited access to water, and the day that the city runs out of water — ominously known as “Day Zero” — moves ever closer for the nearly 4 million residents.
A communal tap runs in an informal settlement near Cape Town, South Africa, Jan. 23. While the city urges people to restrict water usage, many living in poor areas already have limited access to water, and the day that the city runs out of water — ominously known as “Day Zero” — moves ever closer for the nearly 4 million residents. — The Associated Press

There’s a fascinating cautionary tale playing out in Cape Town, South Africa — one that has an echo that many environmentalists know well.

The city is on track to be the first major urban centre to completely run out of water. Its reservoirs are at 28.7 per cent of their capacity, and the city has set April 21st as Day Zero – the day when the city will be forced to shut off its municipal water system, and instead have four million people line up for a daily ration of 25 litres of water at 200 water collection points.

Day Zero keeps creeping closer, because significant numbers of people in the city have been ignoring the city’s request for residents to limit water use. In fact, last week, just 39 per cent of the city’s residents met the city’s request that people ration themselves to 87 litres of water a day.

Just stop for a moment and imagine what that life would be like — using only the water you can carry home.

The effects of Day Zero sound pretty darned draconian: consider the details outlined in the now-weekly Cape Town Wednesday Water File, put out by the World Wildlife Fund.

“On Day Zero, the city will move into full-scale Emergency Stage 3. This means that water to households and businesses will be cut off. There will not be enough water in the system to maintain normal services and the taps (and toilets) will run dry. … Many businesses will not be able operate unless they can provide temporary (off-mains) toilets and drinking water.”

Just stop for a moment and imagine what that life would be like — using only the water you can carry home.

The same bulletin warns that a shut-off can be expected to last until winter rains in the region — so, until August.

Yet, despite the warnings and even fines, a substantial number of people are still watering lawns, even filling swimming pools, and generally going on with their regular lives.

Why? Because, when you get right down to it, a majority of people count themselves as environmentally friendly right up until the moment when it actually requires some form of personal sacrifice.

In other words, people are happy to support conservation, but only if it doesn’t personally inconvenience them — even if a crisis is only days away.

When it does, they’re more likely to stop viewing themselves as part of a collective, and to justify their actions by saying that the direct effects of their own actions are minimal, at best.

What’s one more plastic bottle or bag? Why walk when I can drive? Why conserve, when I can afford not to?

It’s a world view that has to change — because eventually, in a whole host of different ways, just like Cape Town, we’re all eventually facing our own Day Zeros.

We’re going to ride the personal greed train right over the cliff.

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