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The Day the Water Ran Out — Climate Change Day Zero Swiftly Approaching for Cape Town

It’s the worst drought in at least 100 years. Possibly the worst in 300 years.

I’m not talking about Iran or Syria or California or Sao Paulo or the Caribbean or Somalia or Yemen or India or a hundred other places that have suffered severe drought and related water crisis during recent years. This time, I’m writing about Cape Town, South Africa.

For Cape Town, the dry time began two years ago. A strong El Nino initiated a warmer, drier than normal weather pattern. Accelerated by much warmer than normal global temperatures, what would have typically been a milder period of heat and drought bit deep into South Africa’s reservoirs. These hotter temperatures associated with human caused climate change enhanced evaporation causing both lands and lakes to give up their precious moisture at a much faster rate.

(From the video climate scientist Peter Johnston notes that increased heat from global warming means more evaporation which results in less water for Cape Town and other places around the globe. Video source: CBS This Morning.)

El Nino has since moved on and the La Nina months are here. But the blistering drought remains. Stuck in a self reinforcing cycle of heat and lack of rainfall. After such a long period of such abnormal punishment, the reservoirs that feed Cape Town are on the brink of running out.

With supplies dwindling, residents of this major city and tourist destination have been slapped with serious water restrictions. Each has been asked to use just 87 liters of water per day. That’s about 1/4 the average use for an American. One that provides precious little for washing dishes, taking showers, flushing the toilet, doing the laundry, preparing food, and drinking. But only about half of Cape Town’s residents are complying with the restriction.

(The long term precipitation trend for Cape Town reservoirs has been on a steady decline since the 1940s. A signal concurrent with a human-forced warming of the global climate system. Image source: Piotr Wolki and Andrew Freedman.)

In the Cape Town region, crushing drought continues unabated. And as a result of the combined lack of compliance with rationing and lack of rain, the reservoirs are swiftly falling. By February 1, Cape Town will ask residents to adhere to a draconian 50 liter water restriction. And if that doesn’t work, if the rains don’t somehow miraculously come, then Cape Town will effectively run out of enough water to fill pipes.

Under this very difficult scenario, water pipes to everything but essential services like hospitals would be cut off. Residents would be forced to make daily treks to one of 200 outlet pipes to fill up water bottles. If this happens, then Cape Town will be the first major city in the world to be forced to fully cut off its municipal water supply.

The day on which this historic and ominous presage of climate change related water difficulties is predicted to happen is a moving target. And lately the target has been moving closer. Ignominiously called Day Zero, the water cut-off date for Cape Town as of last week was April 21 of 2018. This week, due to failure to adhere to water restrictions and due to unrelenting drought, that date has jumped to April 12.

That’s 79 days left until Cape Town’s taps run dry for the first time since that city, or any other major city, possessed a municipal water system.

This event is happening in a hotter than normal world. It’s happened due to a drought that has been enhanced by that very heat. And it’s happening following an 80-year-long period of declining rainfall for the Cape Town region. Let us hope for the city’s sake that the rains return soon.

Let this serve as yet one more warning to us all. Climate change is generating a much more difficult water security situation for pretty much everyone. It’s just a simple fact that the more heat you have, the more evaporation that takes place. And it’s a more intense rate of evaporation that enables both worsening drought and increased risk of water shortages as we’re seeing so starkly now in Cape Town.

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57 Comments

  1. Andy_in_SD

     /  January 25, 2018

    If the water mains need to be shut off to the bulk of the city another unfortunate thing occurs. Water systems need water in them to retain structural integrity. They will suffer in the long term regarding their water tightness. Then, as always there will be rain and the mains will be opened up again, however the system becomes leaky (increasing background depletion of the reservoir). Additionally, sinkholes can develop as the water causes unseen erosion.

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    • More good analysis.

      You guys have been very astute over the past weeks. I really appreciate all the added analysis and, more importantly, how level headed it is. Thanks again.

      Like

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  2. Reblogged this on The Secular Jurist and commented:
    “Ignominiously called Day Zero, the water cut-off date for Cape Town as of last week was April 21 of 2018. This week, due to failure to adhere to water restrictions and due to unrelenting drought, that date has jumped to April 12.”

    Like

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  3. Jerrygar

     /  January 25, 2018

    200 outlet pipes? For approximately 4 million people? At 3 minutes per person that takes 1000 hours (about 41 days) for everyone to get water. Not going to work. Am I missing something?

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    • The center of Cape Town won´t be included (as per the link), so the number of people that will need to use the outlets is probably a bit smaller. I´d bet that a few people in the richer part of the spectrum have cisterns and/or private wells, and won´t be using the outlet pipes neither. But apart that? No, you´re not. It is going to be a socially explosive time.

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  4. Kacey

     /  January 25, 2018

    The use of water to flush toilets is perhaps one of the most shortsighted aspects of modern civilization. It removes all the minerals we eat from the natural cycle in nature and puts them in the water we drink so downstream water has to be treated for pathogens. There is another way … humanure http://humanurehandbook.com/ the safe recyling of human waste for fertilizer. A bucket of waste with leaves or sawdust on top of each addition DOES NOT SMELL. Used it for years.

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    • eleggua

       /  February 2, 2018

      Use the fertilizer on your own crops. If everything you eat comes from your own self-fertilized garden, quite literally, you are what you eat.

      Robert, if you see this, regarding the similar situation in Rio in 2015, do you know how they were able to avoid running out of water?

      NYT article from yesterday on Cape Town crisis.

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  5. Spike

     /  January 25, 2018

    This is a regional problem at present with Cape Town the poster child.

    “Like most of its southern African neighbours, Botswana has received very little rain since the beginning of the 2017/18 agricultural season in October last year. The season runs until April. The shortage of rain has seen most unirrigated crops showing signs of moisture stress across the region.”

    https://www.journalducameroun.com/en/botswana-braces-for-drought/

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  6. kassy

     /  January 25, 2018

    Record jump in 2014-2016 global temperatures largest since 1900
    Heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions and stored in the Pacific Ocean was released by the 2014-2015 El Niño
    Date:
    January 24, 2018
    Source:
    University of Arizona
    Summary:
    Global surface temperatures surged by a record amount from 2014 to 2016, boosting the total amount of warming since the start of the last century by more than 25 percent in just three years, according to a new University of Arizona-led paper. The research is the first to quantify the record temperature spike of an additional 0.43 degrees F (0.24 C) in just three years and to identify the fundamental reason for the jump.

    more on:
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180124123225.htm

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  7. Loni

     /  January 25, 2018

    I’m assuming that plans are being made for an exodus.

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  8. DJ

     /  January 25, 2018

    I’m trying to imagine how a city of 4 million is going to run without water. More specifically, how 4 million people are going to queue up at 200 outlet pipes every day to get the water they need to survive, let alone function as a society.

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    • paul

       /  January 26, 2018

      WEF and that which it represents being a major part of the problem.

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    • I’m really heartened by the fact that WEF is taking up this issue. Would also note that attacking WEF isn’t really helpful. We need to change how we do business. Not attack business altogether. It’s ironic that Trumpists are also attacking WEF. In some respects this feeds into Jingoism and Xenophobia as well as the larger US withdrawal from engagement that has become so harmful.

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  9. Improbable Otherness

     /  January 25, 2018

    I wonder how Cape Town’s situation changes IF a large fire erupts in the city.

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    • Andy_in_SD

       /  January 26, 2018

      That is a terrifying thought!

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    • eleggua

       /  February 2, 2018

      ‘Cape Town tries to ease water crisis concerns’
      2018-01-30 https://www.shine.cn/news/world/1801309665/

      “Firefighters walk up along a fire hose after fighting a fire on Table Mountain on January 28, 2018, in Cape Town. Firefighting organitations face an especially difficult next few months as the risks of fires is on the increase, as the summer season reaches it’s hottest time, but the Western Cape is facing severe water shortages.”

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  10. rhymeswithgoalie

     /  January 25, 2018

    One lower-tech option for open-water reservoirs is to have floating covers for large portions of the surface. This would reduce evaporation. A couple of decades ago I asked a hydrogeologist how much our central Texas reservoir (Lake Travis) lost to evaporation each year. “Six feet,” he said. It’s probably increased since then.

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  11. Rise in severity of hottest days outpaces global average temperature increase
    Study also finds megacities affected most by uptick in extreme-heat events. U.Cal – Irvine
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180124151325.htm

    Engineers at the University of California, Irvine have learned that urban centers with more than 5 million inhabitants and parts of Eurasia and Australia have been hardest hit by the accelerated growth in short-term, extreme-heat events, resulting in lost lives, reduced agricultural productivity and damage to infrastructure.

    In a paper appearing in the American Geophysical Union journal Earth’s Future, the researchers report that their analysis of temperature readings from the most recent 50- and 30-year periods rules out the possibility that natural climate variability is to blame for the mercury rising.

    “The global average annual temperature has increased over the past three decades at a rate of 0.20 degrees Celsius per decade, but we have found that the maximum temperature of the year has climbed at a much faster rate — two to three times higher in such regions as Eurasia and parts of Australia and more than three times higher in some megacities,” . . .

    The research team analyzed data on the hottest day of the year from 8,848 land surface weather stations around the world. Looking at thermometer readings for the 50-year period ending in 2015, they saw an average international increase in short-term highest temperatures of 0.19 degrees Celsius per decade; the growth accelerated to 0.25 degrees per decade in the 30 years from 1986 to 2015.

    Hottest-day-of-the-year measurements for major cities such as Paris, Moscow and Tokyo climbed precipitously by as much as 0.60 degrees per decade during the period studied. More than just temperature readings on a map, these events have taken a severe human toll: A heat wave in Europe in 2003 caused roughly 70,000 deaths, and another in Russia in 2010 killed nearly 55,000 people. In the United States, an average of 658 deaths due to excessive heat were reported per year between 1999 and 2009.

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  12. JH Wyoming

     /  January 25, 2018

    I am blocked from posting on here but someone should post that Cape Town doesn’t expect rainfall until May, after the April deadline.

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  13. Erik Frederiksen

     /  January 25, 2018

    There was an article a couple of years ago about the decline of Himalayan glaciers and the implications for water supply to 1.5 billion people in Asia as a result.

    “Last weekend, Chinese scientists released a separate report that said the surface area of glaciers on Mount Everest, which straddles the Tibet-Nepal border, have shrunk nearly 30 percent in the last 40 years.

    Vanishing glaciers raise urgent concerns beyond Tibet and China.

    By one estimate, the 46,000 glaciers of the Third Pole region help sustain 1.5 billion people in 10 countries — its waters flowing to places as distant as the tropical Mekong Delta of Vietnam, the hills of eastern Myanmar and the southern plains of Bangladesh. Scattered across nearly two million square miles, these glaciers are receding at an ever-quickening pace, producing a rise in levels of rivers and lakes in the short term and threatening Asia’s water supply in the long run.

    A paper published this year by The Journal of Glaciology said the retreat of Asian glaciers was emblematic of a “historically unprecedented global glacier decline.”

    “I would say that climatologically, we are in unfamiliar territory, and the world’s ice cover is responding dramatically,” said Lonnie G. Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University who helped found a project to study climate change on the Tibetan Plateau.”

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  14. cushngtree

     /  January 25, 2018

    And as rivers run dry, countries will raise dams to provide water to their people, and the countries downstream will be hurting even more…and some of them have nukes…

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  15. Greg

     /  January 26, 2018

    Just in case you didn’t know:

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    • Greg

       /  January 26, 2018

      This original piece includes videos and other material state by state so you can see the local impacts and responses all over the United States.

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    • The Weather Channel really stepped up on this one. Now we need some major media support for renewable energy and related sustainability. That will be a bit tougher to manage. But, yeah, it’s a serious need.

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  16. Vic

     /  January 26, 2018

    2017 was a disaster year for global insurers, with record weather-related costs.

    A report from reinsurance broker Aon Benfield found that 2017’s natural catastrophe losses were 93% higher than the average over the previous 16 years.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-01-25/insurers-hit-by-costliest-year-of-weather-disasters-on-record/9361550

    The report comes as Australia’s largest global insurer QBE warned investors to brace for a significant full-year loss with chief executive Pat Regan labelling the cost of the catastrophes as “unprecedented”.

    “2017 was a one-in-100-year event for global insurers,” Morningstar analyst David Ellis told the ABC.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-01-23/qbe-flags-massive-loss-on-natural-disasters-trump-tax-cuts/9352642

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  17. I’ve been writing bits of poetry to capture what it’s like to experience this crisis. Sometimes, it’s the small observations in daily life that best express what a city’s thirst truly feels like.
    -jules

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  18. wharf rat

     /  January 26, 2018

    The global CO2 rise: the facts, Exxon and the favorite denial tricks
    stefan @ 25 January 2018

    The basic facts about the global increase of CO2 in our atmosphere are clear and established beyond reasonable doubt. Nevertheless, I’ve recently seen some of the old myths peddled by “climate skeptics” pop up again. Are the forests responsible for the CO2 increase? Or volcanoes? Or perhaps the oceans?

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2018/01/the-global-co2-rise-the-facts-exxon-and-the-favorite-denial-tricks/

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    • I’ve been seeing that too. Along with the old confusionist arguments using nuclear energy (too expensive) to attack renewables. Ironically, these arguments typically find their way into the environmental, climate, and clean energy community. I think they get there through influence peddling to vulnerable parties. It’s something I’ve seen time and time again. That said, there is a rational argument for not shutting down nuclear in cases where it would require coal or gas plants to replace it. If we shut down a nuke plant, it’s crucial to replace it with renewables. Not coal or gas.

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    • Related amazing reductions in the cost for solar + battery storage and wind + battery storage in Colorado.

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  19. Greg

     /  January 26, 2018

    Solar industey continues to rapidly evolve, innovate and lower costs. First Solar’s recent story Is Using Robots to Better Tap the Sun – There are just a few dozen workers scattered about; before the renovation, there were hundreds. The company acknowledges that it cut jobs, but it says the ones that remain are safer and pay better. The panels produce 244 percent more power at a manufacturing cost of as little as 20¢ per watt, about 30 percent less than the cheapest Chinese equivalent.
    https://electrek.co/2018/01/26/egeb-robotic-first-solar-sunpower-demands-tariff-exemption/

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    • Saw this. 20 cents per watt is amazing.

      Also saw that an effort was afoot to pre-package solar panels, modules, inverters and wires so as to drive down U.S. installation costs to 1 dollar per watt for households. If that happens, it would be a real game changer. The focus was on ease of installation.

      The U.S. overall is still pretty hostile to rooftop solar when it comes to ease of installation and regulations. We need to keep looking for ways to break down those barriers. The falling panel prices are certainly helping. It’s absolutely an assist for mass adoption at the utility level at this time. And barriers for residential solar are lower than they have been. However, we could really be moving a lot faster.

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    • This is incredible news. 20 cents/watt?!

      Robots are a big part of this. Any time a process can be automated, the cost goes way down and reliability goes way up. Machines don’t get distracted or tired.

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  20. Jacque in southern Utah

     /  January 26, 2018

    Paul Krugman today: The Economics of Dirty Old Men

    “…tariffs on washing machines and solar panels. The former tariff was, I think, more about looking tough than about any kind of strategic objective. The latter, however, fits in with an important part of this administration’s general vision. For this is very much an administration of dirty old men.The solar panel tariff is more interesting, and more disturbing, because it will surely destroy many more jobs than it will create.
    The fact is that the U.S. is largely out of the solar panel-producing business, and whatever the reasons for that absence, this policy won’t change it. Like the washing-machine tariff, the solar-panel tariff was imposed using what’s known in trade policy circles as the “escape clause” — rules that allow temporary protection of industries suffering sudden disruption. The operative word here is “temporary”; since we’re not talking about sustained protection, this tariff won’t induce any long-term investments, and therefore won’t bring the U.S. solar panel industry back.
    What it will do, however, is put a crimp in one of the U.S. economy’s big success stories, the rapid growth of renewable energy. And here’s the thing: Everything we know about the Trump administration suggests that hurting renewables is actually a good thing from its point of view. As I said, this is an administration of dirty old men.”

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  21. Jeremy in Wales

     /  January 26, 2018

    You may remember Hansen’s paper from 2016 (?) where he suggested that 1000 tonne boulders moved atop a 60 foot cliff in the Bahamas by superstorms in the Eamian. This caused some disagreement at the time as others suggested they were the remanants of kharst towers or other means of erosion.
    So I thought it was interesting that there is now some obsevational data on boulder movements from western Ireland which suggests that even now some massive boulders are being moved. Not every year but still on a regular basis.
    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0012825217302350
    https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/100835536/a-storm-moved-a-620tonne-rock-in-ireland-a-stunning-new-climate-change-omen
    Both the Bahamas and Ireland are on the margin of the Atlantic and the fetch in which to build waves is a few thousand miles. Having lived by the sea I find it easy to envisage such extreme events.

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    • eleggua

       /  February 2, 2018

      Reposting these bits from last December.

      Here’s an article from the Irish Times.
      https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/ancient-storms-not-a-tsunami-left-massive-boulders-on-western-coast-cliffs-study-finds-1.3314054

      And here’s a relevant paper.

      ‘Wave‐Emplaced Coarse Debris and Megaclasts in Ireland and Scotland: Boulder Transport in a High‐Energy Littoral Environment’
      Anja Scheffers, Sander Scheffers, Dieter Kelletat and Tony Browne
      The Journal of Geology
      Vol. 117, No. 5 (September 2009)

      https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.1086/600865.pdf?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

      abstract

      “Many coastlines of the world, particularly those at higher latitudes and those located in tropical cyclone belts, are regularly battered by strong storm waves. Drowning of low‐lying areas by storm surges and storm floods has been thoroughly recorded; however, storm deposits at rocky shorelines or on cliffs have been underrepresented in the literature. This article presents observations of extraordinary wave deposits along the high–wave energy coastlines of western Ireland and the northern Scottish isles and discusses possible wave event types and time windows of the processes responsible. We used archaeological, geomorphological, and geochronological disciplines to compare our findings with earlier results published for these areas and to contribute to the debate on whether large clasts found well above sea level and/or a considerable distance inland were deposited by storms or by tsunamis.”

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  22. kassy

     /  January 26, 2018

    A long article about the changes in Glacier National Park.

    I never heard of the Ptarmigan before but that that bird will be gone soon. Adapted to a landscape that died… (same for some salmon too).

    http://mentalfloss.com/article/521379/troubling-consequences-vanishing-ice-glacier-national-park

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  23. Syd Bridges

     /  January 26, 2018

    I saw this story on sciencedaily recently. I remember in the ’80s that Chloride were working on liquid sodium batteries-the sodium sulphur battery. The discovery that a steel mesh with titanium nitride could make liquid sodium batteries more feasible would allow for utility buffering of intermittent renewables.

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180122150816.htm

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  24. Dave McGinnis

     /  January 28, 2018

    Jeremy in Wales, I’ve always thought that such boulder movements in the Bahamas resulted from Tsunami. For example this has been reported from Hawaii, where coral heads lie on top of lava cliffs, completely erratic but I can’t give a reference. By way of corroboration there are entire layers of rock missing from the strata in portions of Florida, swept away by seismic sea waves. (Petuch et.al., https://www.amazon.com/Geology-Everglades-Adjacent-Areas-ebook/dp/B00A8SLYRW/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1517177658&sr=8-3&keywords=geology+of+the+everglades)

    Like

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  25. eleggua

     /  February 2, 2018

    Good SA news source.

    https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica

    Like

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  1. What’s the Real U.S. Weather Story for Fall and Winter of 2017-2018? Abnormally Warm, Abnormally Dry. | robertscribbler

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