Editor’s Note: Cape Town is enduring the worst water crisis to face a modern city, and its officials project it may run out of water next year, if not sooner. This is the first installment in Cape Town Diary, a series exploring how Cape Town’s water crisis is affecting the daily life of its residents. Raymond Joseph is a freelance journalist living and working in Cape Town. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Popping into my local supermarket in Cape Town a few days ago, I noticed something I’d never seen before – a long line of people queuing out the door. A woman in the queue told me they were waiting for a delivery of bottled water, as the store had run out of it earlier in the day.
A few minutes later, I watched as workers wheeled out pallets stacked high with five-liter bottles of water. Suddenly, pandemonium broke out as people pushed, shoved and argued in their rush to pack shopping trolleys with as many bottles as possible.
Sadly, this is nothing new. On Wednesday, a fight broke out on a quiet suburban road where one of several natural springs bubbles to the surface.
Those in the know have collected free water from these springs for years, but now these once-quiet spots are overrun with people converging from all over the city throughout the day and night. Tempers are frayed and arguments regularly ensue, forcing the city to post metro police at the various springs to keep the peace.
Welcome to Cape Town 2018, where the dams that feed the city are at an all-time low after three successive years of far below-average rainfall. Cape Town is a winter rainfall area, and the earliest we can expect heavy rain is late April – assuming, and this is a big assumption, that normal rainfall returns after several years without.
Not surprisingly, everywhere you go in the city, there is just one topic of conversation: water. With authorities estimating that Cape Town could be just 75 days away from becoming the first major city in the world to run out of water, websites and Facebook pages like this one have mushroomed. A common theme is tips and hints on saving water and posts by MacGyver-types with innovative ideas and inventions.
And the ante has just been upped: Beginning February 1, the local authority introduced the most severe water restrictions yet in Cape Town’s long history. Households are now restricted to 13.2 gallons (50 liters) per person, down from the previous limit of just under 23 gallons (87 liters) a day. With a total ban on watering of gardens and washing of cars, the daily ration must cover bathing or showering, clothes washing, flushing toilets, brushing teeth, washing hair, cooking, as well as drinking water for people and their pets.
Cape Town's water crisis
To put this in context, Americans use an average of 80 to 100 gallons per person each day. And that’s not a ridiculous number when you consider that a 90-second shower uses almost 4 gallons of water and every toilet flush is over 2 gallons.
Large fines are being introduced to punish water hogs who will be charged at a punitive rate that escalates dramatically as their usage increases. For example, households that use up to 5,283 gallons (20,000 liters) per month will see their bill rise from just over $30 to $85 (or, in local currency, R361 to R1,536), while the bill for major consumers who use 12,308 gallons (50,000 liters) will jump from $243 to $1,738 (or, in local currency, a jump from R2,889 to R20,619).
The frenzy around water reminds me of the fear among some people in the run-up to South Africa’s first democratic election in the 1994, which brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) to power. With violence and bombs going off in the weeks leading up to the elections, many feared that civil war was imminent and began hoarding essentials like canned food and non-perishable foods, candles and fuel – but not, strangely, water. Everyone took it for granted that the taps would keep running.
So how did we get here? And what’s it like learning to treat water as the precious resource that it is?
The how is littered with missed chances and a failure to address warnings of a future crisis going back many years. As far back as 1990, South Africa’s Water Research Commission cautioned Cape Town could run out of water within 17 years. And yet, no concrete steps were taken to prepare for this eventuality.
The crisis has been complicated by politicians playing the blame game about who’s at fault. And as the true extent of the drought became clear, a war of words has broken out between the ANC-run national government and Cape Town’s provincial and municipal opposition Democratic Alliance-run governments over who was responsible and who will lead on action steps moving forward.
But while the politicians bicker, we are attempting to adjust to a new reality. Almost overnight, new industries have sprung up around water – like these water-from-air machines, grey water systems and composting and other non-flush toilets.
“Waterpreneurs” are bringing in truckloads of bottled water and tankers filled with potable water. And those who can afford it are digging wells deep below the surface to find safe drinking water.
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In our home, which is not dissimilar to many middle-class homes in Cape Town, we now run less than an inch of water into a bath, for shaving and washing our bodies and hair. The grey water is then collected and stored in buckets to flush the toilets and to water plants. We now wear outer clothes for longer periods of time, limiting the number of times we have to wash clothes per month. Grey water from the washing machine is also harvested and used on the garden and to flush toilets.
This is the new normal for Cape Town. It is also a timely warning for people living elsewhere in the world to preserve and use the water they have sparingly before they, too, face their own Day Zero.