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Cape Town's Water Crisis Marks Divide Between Rich And Poor


We've been hearing that Cape Town, South Africa, could be left without any water as soon as this year. Well, the historic drought hasn't eased, but city officials report that residents have complied with tight water restrictions, so they may have bought some time until the taps run completely dry. Meanwhile, as Daniella Cheslow reports, some wealthy South Africans are sinking their own money into finding extra water.

DANIELLA CHESLOW, BYLINE: Water fills a square pit cut into the corner of a little front yard.

TREVOR HENNINGS: Today, we expect to drill about 60 meters.

CHESLOW: Sixty meters or about 180 feet. Trevor Hennings watches over this process. He specializes in drilling boreholes to tap into underground aquifers.

HENNINGS: It's a very similar method to what the oil rigs use offshore to drill a oil well.

CHESLOW: And this towering, blue drill looks like an offshore rig except for where it is - wedged between a wrought iron fence painted white and the side of a house.

HENNINGS: We had a crane antenna over the wall to put it in position. It weighs about seven tons.

CHESLOW: Since Cape Town's water crisis began, business has exploded.

HENNINGS: We have tripled in size. I've got six drilling rigs. And no matter how many drill rigs I get, it doesn't seem to stem the flow.

MCCAMMON: The pit fills with water, and drilling starts. A nine-foot-long steel drill twists in the mud.

The worst drought in a century has dried up the dams that supply the city of about 4 million people. The city warned that it might reach day zero when there's no more water to pump to houses. People would have to line up for hours at public taps. To avoid that, residents have to stick to 13 gallons of water a day or face steep fees. This crisis has highlighted the vast divide between the rich and poor.

ANDREW MARWELE: So when I'm coming from work - maybe sometimes it's late - on day zero time, I don't think I'll have enough time to go to the queue for the water.

CHESLOW: That's Andrew Marwele, a driller here. He says a driller can make $100 to $200 a week. This borehole costs $15,000. It's being drilled for Fatimah Essop and her husband, Saliegh Salaam. He's an investment manager. She's a Ph.D. candidate in law.

FATIMAH ESSOP: I should get a bigger one.

CHESLOW: A plastic pipe runs from their laundry machine to a big tank, and Essop says she uses this water to keep the garden on life support. It doesn't always work. She runs her fingers through dead, brown leaves.

ESSOP: But you know, this was all full of roses, but they've all died. This rose obviously doesn't take kind to the water shortage.

CHESLOW: Essop came up with the idea to get a borehole. Salaam didn't need much convincing. Stores were running out of bottled water.

SALEIGH SALAAM: People were taking the water off the trucks, even before they enter into the shop.

CHESLOW: City officials say there are rules for boreholes - only use the water before 9:00 a.m. or after 6 p.m., meter your borehole and monitor your use. Essop and Salaam say they never heard of these rules. The city estimates that more than 20,000 private boreholes have been drilled recently.

KIRSTY CARDEN: What we don't know is what the impact is of all the decentralized drilling.

CHESLOW: That's Kirsty Carden, a water expert at the University of Cape Town. The aquifers underground are enormous, and they recharge quickly, she says. But private boreholes are, so far, largely unmonitored. The municipality also plans to drill down into the aquifers. These major projects will take months or years to come online. Until they do, water restrictions will remain in place while Cape Town waits for rain.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Careful. Careful.

CHESLOW: Back at the borehole, Salaam looks at the drill rig and stacks of steel pipe across the front yard. He plans to filter this water to drink.

When you look at this rig, what do you think?

SALAAM: What do I think? I think freedom (laughter).

CHESLOW: For NPR News in Cape Town, I'm Daniella Cheslow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniella Cheslow