Cape Town water crisis: My experiences

Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.
-W. H. Auden

When I visited my family in Cape Town a few weeks ago there was one topic which came up every day; water. Even before had I landed there was announcement on the plane that Cape Town was in the middle of a severe drought and that everyone should use water sparingly. This was followed up with posters in the airport and the first tangible signs of how life had changed. I finished up in the airport bathroom but there was no longer the luxury of soap and water. That had been replaced with waterless hand sanitisers, as in my family’s homes.

This is all the result of multiple years of poor rainfall as well as a growing city putting massive strain on the water supply. There’s a great illustration from NASA (above) which shows how Theewaterskloof Dam, the main source of water for Cape Town, has shrunk to a fraction of its usual size. There has also been lots of talk about what would happen if Cape Town, a city with an estimated population of 3,7 million people, literally ran out of water. When I was planning my trip, that day was expected in April this year, it has since been pushed forward into 2019. Whether it happens or not will depend a lot on the amount of rain that falls this winter but the delay has been due to the efforts of Capetonians.

ShowerRight on the first day, I received a lecture from one of my sisters about how the upstairs bathroom now worked. A large bucket filled most of the shower. It wasn’t stable enough to stand in but it would collect the water that flowed while we waited for it to heat up and then it would collect the splashes as we actually used the shower. Using the shower was different too. There were no more long, relaxing showers. Two minutes. Maximum. This took the form of one minute to get wet, turn off the water and soap up everything, one minute to rinse off and that was it. The water my sisters collected was mostly saved for their horses; mine (because they decided I would get too much soap in the water) was used for the toilet

ToiletThe toilet wasn’t the same either. The cistern was turned off and would be filled with shower water; stored in old chlorine buckets we had from the pool. (The pool itself had been unused for the last two years at least. Restrictions forbade the use of precious water to fill up pools.) Another big change to the use of toilets was that they were only to be flushed after defecation. If you just needed to urinate, that would stay there. Water couldn’t be used for such unnecessary flushing. There’s a little jingle which goes like this.

If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.

It’s not something most people like to consider and it goes against what we grow up learning; I flushed twice from habit after merely urinating during the fortnight I was there. However, standards change when your primary concern is no longer what is most appealing but what will ensure you still have water in the future.

These changes in life style are necessary to use less water. Current water restrictions in Cape Town are 50 litres of water per person per day. You can look here to see what that allows. Concerns over water use in South Africa are nothing new. I remember during a geography class in high school where our teacher asked us to think about how many sources of clean water we had at our homes and then contrast that with many in the country who do not even have any source of clean water at home. Two South Africans even received a design award for the Hippo water roller which allows easier transport of water for poor people in rural areas.

Overall, attempts to reduce water use have been a success. Water use in Cape Town has decreased almost 50% over the past three years! Part of this is a reduction in the amount of water that is used. Some is the use of water from other sources. For example, Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital has built its own filtration plant to clean 200 000 litres of water a day from an underground source. It no longer uses municipal water. Water tanks are also now extremely popular and my parents have installed three tanks which, together,  can collect and store 5750 litres of water from the gutters. At least on those occasions when rain does fall.

Back in June last year, I mentioned the water crisis due to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and embedded a music video from American metal band Disturbed. I don’t know how many people watched it then but I am going to embed it once more and ask that you do watch it. It’s important to listen to the lyrics and watch the images because they will be important in just a moment.

I hope you did watch it because I now want you to think about it in the context of the following quotes about Day Zero – the day which will hopefully not arrive when Cape Town runs out of water – from The Guardian.

…the city will establish 200 water collection points, scattered around the city to ensure the legally guaranteed minimum of 25 litres per person per day…

…thousands of South African Defence Force and police personnel will be deployed after Day Zero to guard water distribution centres, reservoirs and other strategic areas…

Now we need to ask ourselves how we see the environment, our lifestyles and the rest of the world. What does the future hold?  And what do we want in the future?


5 thoughts on “Cape Town water crisis: My experiences

  1. Hm 😦 This is quite tough.. I think i will send your blog post to my parents so they can be prepared..
    But, couldn’t you have closed the bath tub, so that also the water outside the bucket can be scooped out and used? Also, i guess a lot could be safed by showering only every 3rd day and in between just wash with a wash cloth and soap?

  2. I do not know all the details. I assume the main reason that wasn’t done as a main collection strategy is that it wouldn’t be clean enough for the horses to drink. I do believe that is what’s done in my parents’ bathroom though and all that water is then removed from the tub and collected for re-use. Of course, you also don’t have to shower every day and there are several ways you can try to clean yourself.

    Speaking of cleaning I did comment about how dirty the cars were and was told that once when it did start raining, my mother went outside in the rain to clean the car because it was the only way to get that done.

  3. Hi Jason, here is Lekha, I also heard about severe water crisis of Cape Town, now I am realizing the scenario from the vivid description of your firsthand experience. Very well written.
    Rain water harvesting might be a good idea but not at South Africa, But over consumption of underground water is not a sustainable idea either. I think more solutions and inevitable inventions regarding water management are imminent from Cape Town out of sheer necessity.

  4. I agree. Taking too much from underground will have its own set of problems. But in this case, there is a lot of unused underground water and underground water will also just be one of many diverse sources of water. It should be supplementing the catchment of rainwater for low rainfall years.

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