Driving through a middle-class suburb of Cape Town a few days ago, I noticed about 20 people lined up in an orderly queue on the sidewalk. As I got closer, I saw that everyone was carrying plastic containers, and some even had garbage bins.
The reason soon became obvious: A stream of water from a broken water main was gushing down the gutter and into a storm drain. And, as word spread through the neighborhood, people rushed to collect the precious water to use in their homes.
Watching people filling up, I wished that I had a container so I could also collect some of the water. However, I took that experience as an important lesson. As soon as I got home, I stashed a few five-liter plastic bottles in my trunk in case I ever stumbled across an opportunity to harvest free liquid gold again.
With my hometown facing the nightmarish prospect of becoming the first major city in the world to run out of water, we have had to rapidly learn how to eke out every drop by recycling grey water for everything from flushing toilets to watering gardens.
A good friend of mine even shared the phone number of one of many borehole companies that are working non-stop around the city to tap into the three main aquifers — natural underground water storage areas made from layers of permeable rock — beneath Cape Town. When a new borehole is sunk in the ground, he explained, the water is allowed to gush for several hours until it is clear, and my friend and others in the know rush to collect the runoff.
The concerted efforts by Capetonians to find alternative sources — like collecting water from one of the city’s natural springs — and preserving and recycling water is finally paying off. The City Council announced that thanks to the efforts of residents and farmers, Day Zero — when the taps run dry — has been pushed to June 4.
There was more welcome news when, after months of prevaricating, the government declared the drought in the Western and Southern Cape a national disaster. This, in turn, will unlock funds to help pay for measures begun to provide water, like desalination plants and drilling into aquifers. It also provides much-needed relief for Cape Town’s residents who have been hit hard in an effort to help fund the city’s drought relief measures.
And, as if that wasn’t enough good news, last week storms clouds began gathering and unseasonal rain fell over the Cape Town and its “catchment areas,” or the area from which rainfall flows into lakes and reservoirs. Even though the rain was not nearly enough to put a dent in the drought, it put a big smile on peoples’ faces and many took to social media to celebrate.
I flew up to Johannesburg for work a few days before the storm, but I spent hours on social media watching videos of the rain. My friends in Johannesburg thought I’d lost my mind. Unless you’re living through Cape Town’s drought, it’s difficult to understand how emotional an experience it was watching those raindrops fall.
But if I am honest, I’ve surprised myself at how quickly I’ve adapted to the stringent Level 6 water restrictions that were introduced on February 1, limiting our water use to 50 liters per person a day. It just takes some work and planning to get such a restricted amount, as this poster, which explains how to divide up your daily water allowance, shows.
The biggest consumer of water (at 70 liters) is the washing machine, so the poster suggests one wash a week, achieved by accumulating 10 liters a day out of your daily allowance. When it comes to personal hygiene, a 10-liter “stop start shower” — wetting yourself, switching off the shower, soaping and then washing off the soap to use a total of 90 seconds of running water — is recommended. And if you cut out the hair wash, you can save 5 liters. Meanwhile, flushing the toilet uses up to 9 liters, but most people reduce this to zero by recycling the grey water from washing themselves and their clothes.
The City of Cape Town has also produced this handy calculator to help residents allocate their daily water allowance. And the city is regularly updating a Day Zero countdown portal to keep residents in the know on the state of our dams and the status of various desalination and other projects underway to deliver water to our dry city.
Which is all to say, for the first time in a long time, I am finally cautiously optimistic that Cape Town may dodge a bullet and avoid Day Zero all together. But, like most others, I’m taking no chances, and I’ll carry on doing what needs to be done — and more — to make sure that it doesn’t happen.