01/30/2018 09:22 EST | Updated 01/30/2018 09:29 EST

My Home Town Is Counting Down The Days Until Life Without Water

If Day Zero becomes reality, Cape Town, South Africa will be the first major city in the world to run out of water.

I fell asleep last night, phone in hand, feverishly texting with my cousin Trudy. We were talking about her city's water crisis.

Cape Town, South Africa, is where I was born. It's where I formed many of my dearest childhood memories. I feel like I'm right there with Trudy, counting down to life without water.

Debbie Wolfe
With my Uncle John, above Cape Town last October. While the Cape Peninsula is surrounded by ocean, nearly 4 million people could soon be without potable water.

Cape Town's residents have less than 80 days of water remaining. On April 12 — the day they're calling "Day Zero" — the taps will be turned off. From then on, residents will be required to queue up at city distribution points, for their rations of 25 litres per person, per day.

Cape Town relies on several giant reservoirs for its fresh water. For three years, the skies have withheld the soaking winter rains needed to fill the dams. I recall those dams looking more like large lakes, stretching blue and endless into the distance. Recent pictures were like a punch in the stomach. They show cracked deserts, the skeletons of drowned trees standing helplessly in the middle.

I feel helpless. Here in Toronto, when a friend is without water during repairs or city maintenance, you invite them over. You put on the kettle, do their laundry and offer the comfort of a hot shower. I can do none of these things for my cousin.

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Theewaterskloof Dam on Jan. 25, 2018.

A new reality without water

As Day Zero approaches, Cape Town's residents are preparing for a new reality. The local brewery has stopped producing beer, and is now bottling water. Buckets, non-perishable goods and water purification tablets are flying off the shelves, as people get ready for anything.

The 25-litre daily ration might seem like a lot, compared to the trickle on which millions of the world's families survive. Working at World Vision, I've met children who walk five or six kilometers every day just to haul water for their families.

But 25 litres is still just one-tenth of what Canadians consume. I was stunned to learn that each Canadian uses an average of 250 litres per day, for showers, laundry, flush toilets, cooking or drinking. Often, we waste several litres just waiting for the tap to run hot.

As I track with my family in South Africa, I've become acutely aware of my water usage. And I'm wondering what it would be like if Toronto ever experienced something similar. How on earth would our city cope?

RODGER BOSCH via Getty Images
People collect drinking water from pipes fed by an underground spring, in St. James, about 25 kilometres from Cape Town's city centre, on Jan. 19, 2018.

Urban water crises on the rise

If Day Zero becomes reality, Cape Town will be the first major city in the world to run out of water. It's a terrifying thought — but not a new concept. Many of us associate water problems with remote, rural communities, villages with no access to the country's national water supply.

Yet, with more and more families moving to city centres in search of work, water shortages are becoming an urban problem. Almost four billion people live in cities, with a further 2.5 billion expected to join them by 2050. As those populations grow, so too do the sprawling slums with no connection to the city's piped systems.

The situation is getting worse, especially with changing weather patterns. Around the world, millions of city dwellers lack access to basic levels of fresh water for at least one month each year, a situation that's growing ever more critical as urban populations expand.

AFP/Getty Images
A woman throws out waste water next to a line of toilets in an informal settlement in Langa, a mostly impoverished township, about 10 kilometres from the centre of Cape Town, on Nov. 12, 2017.

The poor suffer most

Like any commodity, water can usually be obtained — for a price. In more privileged Cape Town neighbourhoods, some families and businesses have drilled backyard boreholes, offering direct access to underground lakes and streams.

Come Day Zero, Cape Town's poor will receive the same water rations as its wealthiest. But the impact of this crisis could still be much greater for them. Cape Town is a bustling tourist destination, and has been crowned the number one city in Africa for business tourism events. If hotels, guest houses and restaurants can't operate, what will happen to these businesses? Who will pay the staff?

I caught a glimpse of this as early as last October, when visiting the city with my father. We had driven from the airport, and were trying to check in at the guest house he'd booked several months prior. We were turned away at the door.

"We just can't accommodate you," said the owner, his face wrung with worry. "The city has just capped our water limit. We can't wash sheets and towels, and provide showers for our guests. We simply can't operate."

Standing behind the owner, stood a woman with a cleaning cloth in her hand. It seemed clear she would be out of a job before long. Without revenue, the owner could no longer pay his staff.

Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A resident carries a plastic container of water after filling from the communal tap in the Imizamo Yethu township outside Cape Town, South Africa on Nov. 13, 2017.

Water changes everything

I pray that Day Zero will never come, for the sake of Cape Town's citizens. No one deserves to wake up worrying where the day's water will come from. But I'm grateful for all I've learned through this experience. I'll never think about water the same way again.

I've realized that, while I fear for the world's poor, I take my own water for granted. Toronto has a freshwater lake on our doorstep, after all. Surely I can just relax, and stop feeling guilty?

That approach won't wash with me any longer. Not in a world where my cousin, and my fellow Capetonians, are praying for an end to their urban water crisis — a world where many cities face similar challenges, and the poor suffer the most.

When I filled my kettle this morning, I captured the extra water to use for my cooking tonight. It seems like a small thing, but it's a start. I do it in solidarity with Capetonians, and with families around the world who struggle for water.

I'm with you my friends.

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