Presented by

The Atlantic Selects

The Countdown to Day Zero

Mar 05, 2019 | 728 videos
Video by Simon Wood and Francois Verster

What happens when a major metropolitan area runs out of water? The 4.5 million residents of Cape Town are hoping they won’t have to find out. The South African city has been experiencing a severe water crisis since early 2017, when the municipal government began pleading with residents to conserve water. In October of that year, as the situation worsened, the city enforced water restrictions and mandated household rationing, a program that then-Mayor Patricia de Lille called the New Normal. “As a permanent drought region,” de Lille announced in a press conference, “we have to change our relationship with water as a scarce resource.” The program was aimed at preventing an outcome that seemed more and more inevitable: Day Zero, when taps across the city would run dry.


Simon Wood and Francois Verster’s short documentary, Scenes From a Dry City, depicts Cape Town at the height of its water crisis. Residents scramble to circumvent restrictions in order to maintain their livelihoods. Families endure long lines at water-distribution points. Protests spring up across the city, drawing attention to the inequities associated with the privatization of water. The film, created with Field of Vision and premiering on The Atlantic today, is a deeply revealing observational portrait of a city struggling to adapt to scarcity. In many ways, it is a harbinger of things to come.


“We were both intrigued by the way hidden social dynamics were coming to the fore,” Wood and Verster, who are both residents of Cape Town, told The Atlantic in an email. “We saw a great opportunity for a film that looked at Cape Town through the vehicle of a crisis.”


In one particularly affecting scene, a young man, who is struggling to make ends meet, is arrested for running an illegal car wash. He tells the policeman that he has no other options to make a living. “We felt deflated every time an arrest was made,” the directors said.


So far, the water crisis has cost the region more than 30,000 jobs, mostly in the agriculture and tourism sectors. “The poorer employees were the first to go,” the directors said. “The cost of municipal water itself shot up, and this was of course much harder for poorer households to accommodate.”


The severity of the crisis has been attributed to a confluence of factors, including the 1-degree Celsius rise in temperature due to climate change, a one-in-1,000-year weather calamity, and the fact that Cape Town’s population has been rapidly growing despite its stagnant water supply. According to Wood and Verster, locals also blame the Cape Town construction industry’s “massive and irresponsible water consumption—which is, as a rule, actively shielded by the municipality in the name of growth.”


The directors pointed out that their city’s struggle will not be the last of its kind. “It does seem as if what we experienced last year is going to become commonplace around the world,” Wood and Verster said. “The debates around political responsibility, alternative water sources such as desalination plants, socioeconomic rights, privatization, and so on are by no means resolved. It would be good for [governments] to engage.”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.