FILE - Residents walk past a leaking communal tap in Khayelitsha township, near Cape Town, South Africa, Dec. 12, 2017.
FILE - Residents walk past a leaking communal tap in Khayelitsha township, near Cape Town, South Africa, Dec. 12, 2017.

JOHANNESBURG - The much-feared "Day Zero", the day the drought-hit city of Cape Town was supposed to shut off the taps as the water supply ran out, has been quietly pushed from this month to sometime in 2019, with the promise of rainfall in coming months.

But tight water-usage restrictions limiting each resident of the South African city to 50 liters a day remain in place until there is a marked improvement in reservoir levels.

The crisis has left a lasting mark on the coastal city and Cape Town officials are touting the experience as a valuable lesson in water management that could help other water-scarce cities in the future.

FILE - People queue to collect water from a spring
FILE - People queue to collect water from a spring in the Newlands suburb as fears over the city's water crisis grow in Cape Town, South Africa, Jan. 25, 2018.

Water conservation expert Claire Pengelly works for Green Cape, a conservation-oriented non-profit that has been advising local industry during the city’s long drought.  She says some residents have welcomed the apparent end of Day Zero, but others are more skeptical.

“You’ll certainly get the perspective from certain individuals that we’ve had an impact, we’ve been able to save and it means that we will get through this summer, and therefore And Day Zero has been postponed,” Pengelly said.  “But obviously you’ve got the other perspectives that are saying, ‘Day Zero was effectively some kind of a hoax, really just a marketing ploy to change behavior, it was never ever going to happen.’ 

But she said, the threat of Day Zero was ultimately an important wake-up call.  She notes that while the threat of Day Zero is diminished, overall water consumption hasn’t risen in Cape Town.

“Although the message around Day Zero has changed quite a lot, it hasn’t hugely impacted in terms of the behavioral change that we’ve seen within the city,” she said.  “Which I think is quite encouraging.”

FILE - The Theewaterskloof Dam, a key source of wa
FILE - The Theewaterskloof Dam, a key source of water supply to Cape Town, South Africa, is shown at low levels, April 16, 2017.

Late changes
 
Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson defended the city’s decision to sound the alarm in late January, when three successive years of drought had left the city’s three main reservoirs dangerously low.
 
“It’s easy to say at this stage, once we’ve overcome the problems and achieved what we’ve achieved now,” he told VOA.  “But when we go back to December, January of this year, then the situation then was very very different, the consumption of the city was still too high at that stage, even though it had been very significantly reduced ...  And it was only essentially towards the end of January, the end of February, when the city put in the much tougher restrictions that we were able to turn this around.”

Neilson has previously criticized Cape Town’s politically embattled mayor, Patricia De Lille, for her handling of the crisis.

A family negotiates their way through caked mud ar
FILE - A family negotiates their way through caked mud around a dried up section of the Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town, South Africa, Jan. 20, 2018.

The deputy mayor was handed the water portfolio earlier this year and says the city waited too long to act.

“We knew already that that was all we had," he said. "But action was delayed on that while the mayor was still managing the situation. We should have at that point brought in these tougher restrictions, in the beginning of November, but that was delayed and in the end we only, as a city, only implemented that at the beginning of February.”

"So essentially we lost three months where we could have been saving water far better, and that, I believe, if we had done that that could have significantly affected the projections on Day Zero much earlier and we would probably not have made that call that Day Zero was possible this year.”

Pengelly, who says she now takes one-minute showers and saves certain types of waste water to use around the house, says the experience has left her, and the city, forever changed, for the better.
 
“I do dream of a day when the drought is over and I can have a long, hot bath, which I haven’t had a bath in well over a year,” she said with a sigh.  “But I know a lot of the kind of inherent saving and feeling around the scarcity and the value of water I think will always stay with me.”