DON GONYEA, HOST:
Cape Town says the careful saving of water by its residents has delayed something that they ominously call Day Zero. That's the day the city warned taps would be totally empty after a drought dried out reservoirs behind its dams. But Daniella Cheslow reports that even before the drought, water restrictions were part of everyday life for the city's poor suburbs.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLASTIC RIPPING)
DANIELLA CHESLOW, BYLINE: At a primary school in Khayelitsha township, the summer sun shines. And a big water shipment arrives.
Four schoolboys are in a truck, unloading bottles of water. They're ripping the plastic off a pallet of water bottles.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLASTIC RIPPING)
CHESLOW: They hand them in a chain to the waiting arms of other schoolboys - kids in white shirts and green cardigans, gray slacks.
Each bottle weighs more than 10 pounds. And some boys take two in each hand and stagger inside.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL YARD AMBIENCE)
CHESLOW: The Isikhokelo School has about 1,200 students. And they need this water. Principal Yoliswa Qomoyi says she locked the outside taps because Cape Town raised its water fees. And the school can't afford to waste.
YOLISWA QOMOYI: We've asked learners to bring - those who can bring bottles of water to drink.
CHESLOW: One of those learners is 12-year-old Hlomla Myendeki. He walks more than a mile to school, carrying his water from home. Then he has to share it with kids who don't have any.
HLOMLA MYENDEKI: How can you stand with other learners, but you can't share with them?
CHESLOW: We talk as other students pose for pictures with the hundreds of bottles. Hlomla says there's another problem. He thinks his classmates get sick from the tap water. Twelve-year-old Awonke Matinise says school gets tough when water's tight.
AWONKE MATINISE: Sometimes I get thirsty and realize that there is no water in our school. So I just have to stand there and write the papers.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)
CHESLOW: The truck empties. Ali Sablay drives away. He's project manager at the Cape Town office of Gift of the Givers charity. They brought this school the water.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
ALI SABLAY: (Foreign language spoken).
CHESLOW: On the road, Sablay takes calls incessantly - schools, old age homes, institutions for the disabled. They worry about lower water pressure, high bills and new meters the city's installing. To help, Sablay's group plans to drill 200 boreholes into groundwater all over Cape Town. Recently, the charity bought a drill rig to cut down costs.
SABLAY: It's our own drilling machine. But we have a company that's using our rig to do the drilling.
CHESLOW: Across the township, the water shortage already hurts.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER POURING INTO BUCKET)
CHESLOW: Samantha Tibisono fills a bucket from a communal tap to wash her clothes like usual. She says she'll reuse that water to wash the floors.
SAMANTHA TIBISONO: Twenty liters in this - 25 liters this one. And then under the table, there's 20 liters there.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER POURING)
CHESLOW: But now there's less of it. Her daughter shows me three tall buckets of water, their backup. Lately, there have been unannounced cuts to their tap for hours.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESSURE HOSE SPRAYING)
CHESLOW: A few steps away is a busy street corner where Kwande Kulu has escaped the water restrictions. He sprays cars clean with a pressure hose. He says city officials threatened to close his business for wasting tap water. So he paid to drill a well and uses groundwater to wash the cars.
KWANDE KULU: If you have a borehole, you're sorted. You're safe.
CHESLOW: Zola Mfakado drinks beer and eats grilled sheep meat while he waits for his car to get clean. He says he is one of the lucky people in the township with a flushing communal toilet. Many others use buckets.
ZOLA MFAKADO: The issue of Day Zero doesn't mean anything to us because we've always been on day zero.
CHESLOW: For NPR News in Cape Town, I'm Daniella Cheslow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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