A man collects water from an outlet pipe in Newlands, Cape Town where a severe drought has gripped the city. Picture: Courtney Africa/ANA

Cape Town - Mandla Qosholo heaves a 25-litre bucket of water onto her head and carries it up a sandy slope towards her shack.

The 25-year-old lives with her husband in two shabby rooms built with old wooden planks and corrugated iron in Khayelitsha, one of the largest informal settlements in South Africa's tourist metropolis Cape Town.

Qosholo doesn't have a kitchen or a bathroom. Her toilet is a public pit latrine. If she needs water - to drink, cook, clean or wash clothes - she has to queue at a communal tap, sometimes with hundreds of others.

"At peak times, especially in the morning and evening, it can take hours," says the unemployed young woman. "Every day, I lose valuable time queuing, time I could use to look for work," she sighs.

Qosholo's daily water-fetching routine could soon become reality for all of Cape Town's 4.5 million residents.

Due to a three-year drought, the dams supplying the city with fresh water are almost empty.

The city has projected July 9 as "Day Zero," the day it has to turn off the taps if it doesn't rain sufficiently before then.

Residents would then have to fetch 25 litres of water per person per day from 200 distribution centres, supervised by the military and police.

Already, Capetonians have to drastically save water and are only allowed to use 50 litres per person daily. Residents have been hoarding drinking water, while rainwater tanks are sold out across the city.

Anele Goba, who also lives in Khayelitsha, has little sympathy for the panic of wealthier residents.

"'Day Zero' would give them a taste of how slum dwellers live," says the 34-year-old. "Maybe that wouldn't be a bad thing," he laughs.

An expert from the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), a non-profit group advocating for human rights of the poor, agrees with Goba.

"For the first time, everyone in Cape Town has to live with water restrictions that are a daily reality for all slum dwellers," says SJC Project Manager Musa Gwebani.

About 400 000 people live in Khayelitsha alone, according to Cape Town's 2011 census figures. How many of them live without running water is not documented, but experts estimate the number to be at least in the tens of thousands.

According to the SJC, 1.2 million people live in informal settlements across the city.

And the situation is similar for millions of others worldwide. According to the United Nations, around one third of the world's population - around 2.1 billion people - does not have running water at home.

Gwebani describes the almost apocalyptic fear of "Day Zero" as a luxury of the middle class that shows how little South Africa's dramatic gap between rich and poor has closed since the end of the racist apartheid regime some 20 years ago.

South Africa has one of the world's highest levels of social inequality in the world, according to a UN human development index.

"I get so angry when people complain about not having enough water or having to use a certain amount a day," Sune Payne, a young South African journalist, writes in local newspaper Daily Maverick.

Her family had to live with fewer than 40 litres of water per person per day for years to be able to pay the water bill, according to Payne.

Melissa Steyn, a professor at the Institute for Diversity Studies at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, hopes that the water crisis will be an "equalizing moment" for South Africa.

"I hope the crisis will be used to drive reforms and build a fairer society," says Steyn. Access to running water for all South Africans is a fundamental human right and not a luxury, Steyn added.

Qosholo, who has had to fetch water from distant wells since childhood, shows compassion for those better off than her.

"It's very hard to carry so much water every day," she explains. "I'm used to it, but I think others will struggle."