Picture this: climate change and overconsumption have diminished Boston’s water supply. All residents are prohibited from consuming more than thirteen gallons of water a day. Still, experts predict that a “day zero,” when all taps in the city will need to be shut off due to dangerously low water levels, will arrive within months.

 

This is the situation that the 3.8 million inhabitants of Cape Town, South Africa face today. Although the aforementioned scenario may seem unthinkable in the United States, let alone Boston, the shortages in Cape Town serve as proof of the frightening reality of water scarcity facing communities around the world. Global leaders must realize the gravity of this issue and institute preventative local legislation to ensure safe water for all of their citizens.

 

A drought caused by poor rainfall and prolonged by climate change has reduced the normal levels of the supplies that provide Cape Town’s water to 20%. If they reach 13.5%—likely to happen by 2019—“day zero” plans will go into effect. This will include having to queue for water every day.

 

To defer this date, Capetonians are required to limit showers to 90 seconds, flush the toilet only once daily, and restrict other water-consuming activities to ensure that they use only 50 liters of water a day. For some perspective, the average American consumes nearly seven times that amount on a daily basis. Although individuals in Cape Town who expend excessive amounts of water can be fined up to $730 USD, for months more than half of Capetonians have ignored the government’s requests to consume less water.

 

As a result of the water crisis, Premier of the Western Cape Helen Zille announced that she showers only every three days to preserve this valuable resource. Despite being somewhat drastic and potentially unhygienic, this choice demonstrates a commitment to water conservation and sets a strong example. Although measures to prevent water crises (both politically and individually) may require initial sacrifices, in the long term they are imperative—no one can be exempt. As David Olivier, a research fellow at the Global Change Institute at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, says, “The fundamental problem is the kind of lifestyle we’re living. There’s almost a sense of entitlement that we have a right to consume as much as we want.” Political leaders like Zille exemplifying sustainable living is the first step to combat this dangerous mindset.

 

The South African government is also considering several alternative methods of attaining safe water, such as extracting groundwater and building desalination plants to make seawater drinkable. In the meantime, systems of accessing water could include deliveries and built-in tanks for those who can afford it. What this ultimately means, however, is that the consequences of the predicament in Cape Town—a city still recovering from the lasting effects of Apartheid—will hit poorer populations and communities of color the hardest.

 

The question that remains when examining the effects of water scarcity in Cape Town and other water-deficient cities such as Sao Paulo, Jakarta, and Mexico City, is how lawmakers could allow the situation to get so bad. The answer is a combination of political miscalculations. In South Africa, for example, most believed that this would be a short-term drought. But now with the crisis underway and no solution in sight, it is clear the results of climate change and an increasing demand for water are an ever-escalating threat. Leaders with the responsibility of maintaining and administering water around the world must understand and adapt to the heightened rate of change of today’s climate—before it’s too late.