Day Zero – A Water Warning

By Stephanie Sheng for No Water No Life (NWNL)
Edited by NWNL Director, Alison Jones

Stephanie Sheng is a passionate strategist for environmental and cultural conservation. Having worked in private and commercial sectors, she now uses her branding and communications expertise to drive behavior change that will help protect our natural resources. Inspired by conservation photographers, The Part We Play is her current project.  Her goal is to find how best to engage people and encourage them to take action. 


I was horrified when I first heard the news from South Africa of Cape Town’s water crisis and impending ‘Day Zero’ – the day their taps would run dry. Originally forecasted for April 16, then pushed out to May, the apocalyptic-sounding day has now successfully been pushed out to next year. Had Day Zero remained slated for April or May, Cape Town would have been the first major city to run out of water. Although postponed, the threat still remains, and thus restrictions on water usage to 13.2 gallons (50 liters) per day for residents and visitors. Water rationing and a newly-heightened awareness around water use is now the new, legally-enforced normal in Cape Town.

Two things struck me as I read about this situation. First, the seemingly unthinkable felt very close. My visit to Cape Town a few years ago reminded me of San Francisco, my home before New York. Suddenly I was reading that this seemingly-similar city was on the brink of having no water coming out of their taps. As that hit me, I considered what modern, urban life would be like when water is scarce.

ClimateChange-ColumbiaBC.jpgCape Town’s restriction of 13.2 gal (50 L) per day is miniscule in comparison to the 39.6 gal (150 L) per day used by the average UK consumer[1] and the 79.3 to 99 gal (300 to 375 L) per day used by the average US consumer.[2] Unsurprisingly, Cape Town had to undergo drastic changes. It is now illegal to wash a car or fill a swimming pool. Hotel televisions blare messages to guests to take short 90-second showers. Washroom taps are shut off in restaurants and bars. Signs around bathroom stalls say, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” Hand sanitizer is now the normal method of hand cleaning.WASH-Tanzania.jpgShocked by the harsh realities of what water shortage could look like here at home, I was inspired to walk through my day comparing my water habits to the new realities being faced by those in the Cape Town facing a severe crisis. I wanted to discover opportunities where I could cut back, even though I consider myself on the more conscious end of the usage spectrum.

Here is a breakdown of my average water usage per day while living and working in NY, based on faucets spewing 2.6 gal (10 L) per minute[3], and a toilet flush using 2.3 gal (9L).[4]

  • Faucet use for brushing teeth and washing face for 4 min/day: 6 gal (40L)
  • Faucet use for dish washing and rinsing food for 7 min/day:5 gal (70L)
  • Toilet flushes, 4/day: 5 gal (36 L)
  • Drinking water: 4 gal (1.5 L)
  • Showering for 9 min/day — 8 gal (90 L)

My water usage totaled roughly 62.8 gal (237.5 L) per day. That is lower than the average American’s usage, but still more than four times the new water rations for Capetonians!


Living in an urban city that isn’t facing an impending water shortage, it may be more difficult to control certain uses than others (e.g. not flushing the toilet at work). However, there are some simple, yet significant ways to lower our daily water use:

  • Turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth and wash your face.
  • Use the dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand. Only run it when full.
  • Only run the laundry with full loads.
  • When showering, shut off the water while you soap up and shave. Put a time in your shower to remind you not to linger.
  • Recycle water when possible. If you need to wait for hot water from the faucet, capture the cold water and use it for pets, plants, hand washing clothes, and such.


Water use discussed thus far includes obvious personal contributors to our water footprint. But the biggest contributor is actually our diet. Agriculture accounts for roughly 80% of the world’s freshwater consumption[5]. Different foods vary greatly in the amount of water consumed in their growth and production. Meat, especially from livestock with long life cycles, contains a high “virtural water” content per serving. For example, 792.5 gal (3,000 L) of water are required for a ⅓ lb. beef burger[6] – representing four times as much water as required for the same amount of chicken. That virtual water content ratio is even greater when red meat is compared to vegetables.

We don’t have to become vegetarians, but we can cut down on meat and choose meats other than beef and lamb. That change alone would save hundreds of thousands of gallons (or liters) consumed in a year, which is much greater than the 18,069.4 gal (68,400 L) I’d save by reducing my current water usage to that of a Capetonian. Consideration of virtual water content offers some food for thought!


[1] BBC News
[2] United States Geological Survey
[3] US Green Building Council: Water Reduction Use
[4] US Green Building Council: Water Reduction Use
[5] Food Matters Environment Reports
[6] National Geographic
All images/”hydrographics” are © Alison Jones, No Water No Life®.
For more “hydrographics” visit our

NWNL “Pool of Books” 2017

NWNL has compiled a list of new and old favorite books about water issues and our case-study watersheds for your reference for gifts and for the New Year. Many of the authors and publishers are personal friends of NWNL. All of them are worth reading. The links provided below go to Amazon Smile, where a portion of all purchases go to an organization of the buyers choice. Please help support NWNL by selecting the International League of Conservation Photographers to donate to.



Rainforest by Lewis Blackwell (2014)

Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity by Sandra Postel (2017)

Water from teNeues Publishing (2008)

North America:

The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest by Audrey Della Benedict & Joseph K. Gaydos (2015)

Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland by Miriam Horn (2016)

The Last Prairie: A Sandhills Journal by Stephen R. Jones (2006)

Yellowstone Migration by Joe Riis (2017)

Sage Spirit: The American West at a Crossroads by Dave Showalter (2015)

Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor by John Waldman (2013)

East Africa:

Serengeti Shall Not Die by Bernhard & Michael Grzimek (1973)

Turkana: Lenya’s Nomads of the Jade Sea by Nigel Pavitt (1997)

To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa by Pat Shipman (2004)


A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka by Meera Subramanian (2015)

NWNL Photo Exhibit, ‘Following Rivers’ opens @ BIRE March 14th

The Hudson River rises in pristine forests and enters tidal waters under heavily-trafficked urban bridges.  
The Hudson River rises in pristine forests and enters tidal waters under heavily-trafficked urban bridges.

On the banks of our rivers we raise families, grow food, do laundry, fish, swim, celebrate and relax. “Following Rivers,” a new exhibit by conservation photographer and No Water No Life Founding Director Alison M. Jones, tells a visual story of people and the critical water issues they face.

Combining the power of photography and science, NWNL, has spent 8 years documenting river basins in North America and Africa. The exhibit encourages viewers to translate images into questions. What are the impacts of our daily actions? How can we best protect our life-giving rivers and estuaries? Should we reduce resource consumption, require stronger pollution controls, minimize resource extraction, or forgo fossil fuels and material luxuries? How can we approach water as an opportunity for unity and cooperation, rather than a source of conflict?

Downstream impacts of new dams worry elders in Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley.
Downstream impacts of new dams worry elders in Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley.

NWNL believes the nexus of science and art, intellectual and physical resources, and local knowledge can effectively spread awareness of Nature’s unique interdependence and vulnerability of our watersheds’ glaciers, forests, wetlands, plains, estuaries, tributaries. Without raising that awareness, there will be no action.

The exhibit will be on view from March 14 through October 3, 2015.
Join us for a free public reception on Saturday, March 14 from 5-7 pm with Artists talks on April 11 and July 11, 2015 at Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, Clarkson University, 199 Main Street, Beacon, NY 12508 – (845) 838-1600. Gallery Hours: Tu-Th 9-5, Fri 9-1 Sat 12-6 (second Sat until 8)  Sun/Mon-Closed

Learn More about No Water No Life.

This event is part of a global campaign, celebrating International Day of Actions for Rivers.

Rivers in Africa and N America support migrations, but are also clogged by invasive species.
Rivers in Africa and N America support migrations, but are also clogged by invasive species.