CAPE TOWN, South Africa—I was warned right away, at the airport: “We have a water crisis with severe restrictions in place,” read a Buick-sized sign in the arrivals area.
So it was true. I had spent the past week in South Africa on a reporting trip and had decided to pass through Cape Town on my way back, in part out of curiosity about the water shortage. The news coverage sounded scary: Because of a historic drought, the city was nearly out of water. In June, taps are set to run dry—an event referred to, menacingly, as “Day Zero.” If it comes, people will be forced to queue for a daily ration of water from guarded collection points around the city.
It seemed too nightmarish to be plausible. I spent a few months in Cape Town during the southern hemisphere’s wintertime in 2010. I remembered the place as being both relatively well managed—the country hosted the World Cup while I was there—and, well, pretty rainy.
As I collected my bags, I wondered whether the laid-back, visually striking city I remembered had turned into some sort of apocalyptic hellscape out of Mad Max.
Not quite, I discovered. Or at least, not for tourists.
The road medians and public lawns had grown brown and crispy, and some gardens had shriveled, but the city looked more or less normal. My hotel greeted me with a posted “urgent notice” about the water, explaining that the steam room and jacuzzi were closed, and showers would be limited to two minutes or less. No baths allowed. Fair enough. Like The Atlantic’s other health editors, I don’t bathe much anyway.