Drought forces some Cape Town residents into midnight queues for water

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Hundreds of Cape Town residents are being forced to line up overnight to stock up on water as South Africa’s second largest economic hub and tourism attraction struggles with a severe drought that could see taps turned off in May.

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, January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

The lines are a foretaste of what looks set to become a much bigger problem for the city unless rain falls.

On Monday, city officials pushed back “Day Zero” – the day taps could run dry – by a month to May 11 from April 16, as farmers in the water intensive agriculture sector cut back consumption amid tight restrictions.

Last week, dam levels in Western Cape province fell to 24.5 percent from 25.3 percent the previous week and from nearly 38 percent a year ago.

Cape Town’s drought is part of a wider climate change pattern seen around the country including Eastern Cape province, where several towns also face water shortages.

For hard-pressed residents in the port city of 4 million, fear and anxiety stalk the lines as people consider what might happen when large crowds are forced to line up for emergency water rations at collection points.

“I think there is going to be chaos,” said Saleigh van der Schyff, as he inched forward in a long line up where people lined up to collect water from a natural spring in the Newlands suburb.

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“I hope Day Zero never comes, but I can see with people wanting to come here and the desperation for water, we are soon going to realize that water is more valuable than oil,” he said at 11 pm local time on Monday as a steady stream of people continued to arrive at the spring to fill their containers.

The spring runs 24-hours a day and has at least three security guards on duty to keep tempers in check.

Cape Town city authorities have previously tested out a water collection site at a soccer field, saying it plans to roll out an estimated 200 such water points across the city. People will line up between metal fences under the gaze of the army and police as they wait in line to fill up their containers.

Authorities say each person will be allocated 25 litres of water per day, and have been urging residents of the city to “save water or line up for water” in the run-up to Day Zero.

From the beginning of February, residents and visitors will be allocated only 50 litres a day, 7 times less than the average U.S. citizen, according to the World Water Council.

“I am extremely worried because of all the negative things that could happen,” said Sharon O’Connor, a 63-year-old financial assistant as she waited her turn.

Close to the brewery spring at Newlands, city officials stepped in after an altercation to access another spring in the area turned violent. One person was arrested, officials said.

Worried about diseases spreading, the city has warned residents about drinking water from unsafe sources across the city.

At another popular collection site where water flows in the surburb of Woodstock that lies at the foot of Table Mountain, pick-up trucks with empty containers pull over under a bridge as people bend down on the pavement to access the water source.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” said one business man, who only identified himself as Amien.

Editing by James Macharia and Matthew Mpoke Bigg