As Cape Town officials struggle to deal with their extreme water shortage, they might want to reconsider their anti-Semitic rejection of Israel’s help. Israelis met their own desert conditions head-on and made the desert bloom — literally! Read about the offer and rejection in April’s Levitt Letter, page 29.

By Gabriele Steinhauser / The Wall Street Journal

Photo: Samantha Reinders for The Wall Street Journal

CAPE TOWN, South Africa—Officials who huddled recently to discuss a debilitating drought delivered an unexpectedly apocalyptic conclusion: Unless Cape Town’s four million residents slash consumption, the seaside city under Table Mountain must take the rare step of shutting its taps to avoid running out of water.

The shock announcement in late January triggered a race to prevent what officials and residents have dubbed Day Zero—the moment when municipal water supply would be cut for most households and businesses.

Since Feb. 1, Capetonians have lived with some of the most stringent municipal water restrictions on earth—13.2 gallons per person a day, enough on average for a 2-minute shower and three toilet flushes. Officials punish water guzzlers by installing consumption-control devices that slow water flows to a trickle after the daily limit is reached.

Cape Town last week pushed up Day Zero to July 9 from April 12. Officials say a cutoff can still be avoided with cooperation from residents, adequate rainfall and successful efforts to desalinize water and pump it from aquifers. But in any case, the city’s depleted reservoirs need three to four years of regular rainfall and low water use to recover, experts say.

Politicians are encouraging conservation by flaunting unwashed, oily hair and bucket showers. Police are confiscating hoses from people caught using public water to wash cars or sprinkle lawns. The government has set a plan to call in the army to secure 200 central collections points, where residents would have to line up. Officials also worry about typhoid and cholera spreading from unsafe drinking water.

“There [is] an unreal kind of feeling about trying to fathom the massive impact that Day Zero could actually result in and how we could manage that,” said Xanthea Limberg, the city councilor in charge of Cape Town’s water and sanitation.

Like many others, Ms. Limberg has changed her lifestyle due to the crisis. She chopped about 10 inches of her curly hair to preserve water while showering; uses water left over from washing to flush the toilet or sprinkle the garden; serves meals on paper plates to avoid having to wash dishes; covered her pool to limit evaporation and provide emergency storage.

Cape Town, known to South Africans as the Mother City, is the latest example of how climate change, and the resulting extreme weather patterns, are forcing cities around the world rethink how they function.

Storm surges in New Orleans, Houston, and New York in recent years threatened entire neighborhoods. From Los Angeles to Rome—where the pope in July turned off the Vatican fountains to raise awareness of a drought—officials are rethinking urban water systems created to flush toilets and bathe with potable water.

Drought-induced water scarcity forces governments and individuals to make tough choices. Is it more important to preserve next season’s harvest and industrial production or ensure residents can have their daily shower? Switch off water for part of the day or rely on residents to respect their rations? Shower or do a load of laundry?

In 2017, Cape Town, whose rainy season usually runs from May to August, got less than half of its median rainfall, making it the driest year on record. Combined with 2015 and 2016, the city has never experienced as little precipitation as in the past three years. And while it is impossible to attribute specific weather events to climate change, most scientists believe that southern Africa, like many other regions in the world, will become progressively drier, making droughts more frequent and severe.

“Cape Town is a really good example of what might happen in the future in many other places,” said Piotr Wolski, a hydrologist and climatologist at the University of Cape Town. “I hope that other cities will learn a lesson from us.”

Critics say Cape Town should have set stricter water limits sooner and better emphasized the threat. Once that reality sank in, the prospect of Day Zero prompted a scramble for water. Consumption soared as people started stockpiling municipal water. Storage tanks to collect rain and containers for 6.6 gallons—the amount residents would be allowed to collect from new communal taps—quickly sold out.

Some shops set limits for the amount of bottled water customers could buy. Businesses, such as the local Coca-Cola bottling plant, are shipping in water after being told to reduce consumption by 45%. Demand for companies drilling boreholes to reach aquifers developed months-long waiting lists. Restaurants and malls discouraged toilet flushes with signs reading, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.”

Still, Capetonians are using more water than they should. Last week, the city used around 138 million gallons of water a day. That is less than half its consumption a year ago but above its target of 119 million gallons. By comparison, California reduced its municipal water consumption by around 25% during the 2012-16 drought.

In Cape Town’s sprawling shantytowns, where about 15% of the city’s residents live, lining up for water is nothing new. Few of their corrugated-iron -and-plywood shacks have running water and residents already share communal taps and toilets. The water restrictions are instead endangering livelihoods.

On a recent day, police swept part of the Khayelitsha township, where roadway car washers cleaned minibus taxis with tap water—a now banned practice. The men, who make between $12 and $25 a day, were slapped with $250 fines and ordered to stop.

“They’ll have to take me to prison because I don’t have the money,” said Mthokozisi Diwu, who was back on the job the next day. Mr. Diwu said he had few alternatives to feed his family besides washing cars. “I will start robbing people,” he said.

In the wealthier suburbs, high users are rebelling against the water-control devices. “They chase us away like dogs,” said Witness Mutisi, a water-meter installer who has been threatened with guns and baseball bats.

Ms. Limberg, the city councilor, said such devices will become standard across Cape Town. “Cities are going to have to look at things … under a new kind of light,” he said. “We have to plan for this new normal.”

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