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Cape Town, a coastal paradise of 4 million on the southern tip of South Africa, is to become the first modern major city in the world to completely run dry.
Time

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Yasmin Dawood is working hard to stick to the limit of 13.2 gallons per day for individuals as this city inches toward possibly becoming the first in the world to run out of water. 

The stay-at-home mom showers quickly once a day with her daughter, keeping buckets in the stall to catch excess water that she uses to flush toilets — when they absolutely have to be flushed.

Her daughter, Asma, 6, wears a special drought uniform that needs less washing, said Dawood. On days when she plays sports, she wears her athletic uniform to school to avoid laundering her regular outfit.

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Cape Town and its surroundings are suffering a severe drought. Three years of low rain levels and an unseasonably dry winter means that average dam levels are hovering just over a quarter full.

The metro area of 3.7 million has less than 90 days’ worth of water in its reservoirs. The countdown to “Day Zero” has begun. The reservoirs would drop below 13.5% and the city must turn off all taps.

Officials had initially estimated it would arrive in April or May. On Tuesday, Cape Town pushed the date back to June 4.

Dawood’s younger daughter Sara, who is 2 ½, gets bathed in a bucket. “If we need an extra shower, we use a facecloth,” said Dawood, 40, who lives in the affluent suburb of Rondebosch. “If our hair is dirty, we use dry shampoo — it works quite well.”

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Everything these days revolves around water, and saving it, residents say.

“Life is very water conscious,” Dawood said. “Every drop counts.”

The water situation is changing lifestyles but it is also hurting livelihoods. 

Westley Byrne, 29, works as a director’s assistant in the city’s thriving film industry. He said work has been scarce since the crisis began. Byrne said international projects that used to come to Cape Town would now rather go elsewhere because of the drought.

“We often host big Hollywood projects and they wouldn’t want to take a risk if there is millions of dollars at stake,” he said. 

Byrne has also considered leaving Cape Town “for a bit” but so far he and his neighbors are managing to stay afloat.  

“I don’t know how bad it’s going to get and I know other people I have spoken to feel the same way, but only if Day Zero comes,” he said. 

When the city had light rain one recent night, Byrne decided to give his car a wash. “People are concerned but in a way, they are still hopeful,” he said.

Evodia Boonzaaier, 33, a city government worker, questions whether people here are doing enough to conserve water despite the city’s caps on consumption. 

She said residents of low-income townships have not altered their habits much. Many live in homes that already lack running water and they already share public water pumps. The poorer areas don’t consume as much water as their wealthier neighbors — who are feeling the crisis more, Boonzaaier said. 

The wealthier residents may have run out of plastic buckets and other items to capture water, “but it’s also easier for us because we can afford it. These people are poor so it would be harder for them,” she added.

Boonzaaier and her family had already been thinking about moving to Canada but she said the water crisis has made the decision easier. 

Editor Ngubani, 27, a domestic worker who lives in the township of Capricorn, believes life hasn’t changed much here and says people are drinking, cooking and cleaning like they normally would. 

“People know there is a drought. But they haven’t changed,” said Ngubani. “I’m worried because water is precious.” 

Cape Town is in for a rude awakening when Day Zero arrives, she added. City officials have said the rainy season that begins in the Spring could mitigate the situation, but won’t likely solve the city’s problems.

Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson said water consumption had reached a record low as the city has reduced water pressure, farms cut irrigation and residents reduced usage. The city would enact other measures to reduce usage even further, he said.

“This is very encouraging, but we cannot afford to relax our efforts,” said Neilson.

Pushing back the date for Day Zero has given residents like Dawood reason to hope.

“I think it had been the positive thing for my family,” Dawood said, referring to the water crisis. “We are learning to respect our environment. It’s a good lesson.”

John Dyer reported from Boston.

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