The warnings begin even before you arrive.
“Cape Town is suffering through an extreme water crisis,” the pilot explains on approach, imploring tourists and travelers to save water.
Hotel televisions blare out messages to guests: “90 second showers only!” Washroom taps are shut in restaurants and bars, and “If it is yellow, let it mellow” signs are plastered across bathroom stalls. Giant borehole-drilling rigs and water tankers fight through the city’s notorious traffic.
For months, Cape Town, a city of four million people, has been facing the doomsday scenario of the taps running dry.
With dam levels drastically low, life-altering emergency water restrictions have been implemented in a desperate bid to prevent the catastrophe.
Residents have been living off a daily allowance of just 50 liters (a little over 13 gallons) a day. Anxious Capetonians have been stockpiling water and installing tanks. For many, the day now starts standing in line at a natural spring to collect water for the family. They don’t need to wait for the taps to run dry as the reality of life without water is already here.
The province’s premier has likened the situation to 9/11 – a disaster officials want to avoid at all costs.
On Wednesday, officials suggested the hard work had improved the city’s prospects of avoiding “Day Zero” this year.
“Residents responded magnificently, rolled up their sleeves, and got stuck in,” said official opposition leader Mmusi Maimane. His Democratic Alliance party runs the city and has been heavily criticized for the response to the crisis.
Cape Town has pushed their countdown clock to 2019, but avoiding Day Zero is still dependent on the rain – something entirely out of anyone’s control.
“Provided we continue consuming water at current levels, and we receive decent winter rainfall this year, Day Zero will not occur in 2018,” said Maimane.
A warning of things to come?
While Cape Town is the first major city to face such a water crisis, it is unlikely to be the last.
“The situation in Cape Town is almost a foretaste of what is likely to come in cities worldwide,” said Jasper Knight, a geographer and climate expert at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Drought crises in California, Brazil and Spain all suggest a future where water will be scarce. As urban populations increase, water resources are becoming strained.
Knight said that climate change will increase extreme weather events – more severe flooding and more frequent droughts.
“There will be long-term change to weather patterns across the globe,” he said.
In Cape Town, a harbor city where residents are obsessed with the weather, any long-term resident can point to the changes.
Rainfall used to be sustained over weeks in the winter months, but now it comes later and more erratically, they will tell you.
Recent weather patterns have kept the rain-bearing cold fronts south of the southern tip of Africa, frequently missing Cape Town altogether.
Fear and fortitude
The specter of Day Zero has left Capetonians hovering somewhere between panic and resilience.
“We took it for granted ‘water will always be there,’ but this is how people are. We wait until things like happen and now we want to wake up,” said Aisha Likay, a local resident.
She came with her son to line up on Spring Street in Newlands in the city’s southern suburbs, where an ancient spring wells up from the slopes of Table Mountain.
People come before dawn – seven days a week – for the pure drinking water. The spring produces seven million liters a day.
An enterprising local resident has constructed multiple outlets out of PVC piping and traffic cops at the entrance share jokes with people in the line.
But the seriousness of the situation escapes no one.
“I have lived in Cape Town my whole life and this is the worst that it has ever been. We expected rain a long, long time ago and we haven’t had it, so we are a bit scared,” said Clinton Foreman, who was waiting in the queue.
The city and national governments have faced withering criticism over their handling of the crisis.
A 1990 headline in the local Cape Times warned that the city would “run out of water in 17 years,” based on a Water Research Commission study at the time.
Plans to tap the substantial groundwater under the region were delayed several times.
The warnings were largely ignored and the city’s supply of fresh water still comes from six catchment areas that rely on rainfall.
Theewaterskloof Dam, which once supplied the city with 50% of its supply, looks more like a desert, its water level now hovering close to just 10% of its capacity.
Facing an impending emergency, the city government has deployed water police who patrol wealthy suburbs and informal settlements alike in search of excessive usage. But the best they can do is issue fines or warnings.
Scrambling to come up with rapid solutions like small-scale desalination, water reuse and groundwater abstraction, the city admits these are only stopgaps.
Day Zero has been pushed back several times over the past couple of months – originally it was set for April – largely because of restrictions on personal and agricultural usage.
City officials said they expected more rain in 2017 based on projections.
“You cannot make management decisions based on what you think might happen,” retorted Knight.
“We have seen a dramatic shift in weather patterns and trends, which means that we are operating in an environment of great uncertainty at this point in time,” said Xanthea Limberg, a Cape Town city official.
Putting it in perspective, the last two years of drought are seen by some University of Cape Town researchers as an extremely rare event occurring perhaps once in a thousand years.
A city founded on water
Water activists said the water shortages are ironic given Cape Town’s own history.
European colonists settled at Cape Town – known later as the Cape of Storms – primarily for the freshwater springs that flowed from the mountain.
The city grew from being a replenishment station for ships plying the spice trade between Europe and the East.
And long before the Europeans arrived and pushed them off the land, the indigenous San and Khoi peoples used the same springs.
For more than a decade, local environmental activist Caron von Zeil has mapped at least 36 springs and four rivers under the streets of Cape Town, most now covered by buildings and manholes. They flow straight to the sea.
The springs couldn’t make up for the water shortage, but von Zeil wants people to make smarter decisions about water.
“I think in the history and the making of this city, things have occurred and modernization has occurred. People thought we can get our resources elsewhere and it has just been covered over and forgotten,” she said.
The city is certainly searching for ideas, looking, even, for ways to tap the natural springs again.
“We have to adapt our way of working and thinking around planning around what we call the new normal,” said Limberg, the city official.
Rich-poor divide revealed
South Africa’s colonial legacy has cast a dark shadow over the continent for decades. In Cape Town, it has resulted in vast levels of inequality, which is even more evident throughout the water scarcity.
When it comes to water, the new normal is the old normal for many living in the long-marginalized settlement communities.
Nyoli Nyeki is one of those who resides in Khayelitsha, a vast informal settlement in the Cape Flats. She arrived here from the Eastern cape a year ago and shares a single tap with hundreds of people.
“I come here maybe three times a day for drinking, washing and cooking. It is too difficult,” she said.
The millions of residents in these vast shack lands use less than 5% of the city’s water. More than 60% is consumed by people in houses and apartments.
Deep underneath the Cape Flats is a vast aquifer being tapped by emergency drilling teams. The groundwater and the severe restrictions on every Capetonian should help stave off the unthinkable for this year at least if the rains come.
But for Nyeki, every day is already like Day Zero.
CNN’s Lauren Said-Moorhouse contributed to this report from London.