Just three years ago, as large parts of South Africa struggled to survive a crippling drought and dams dropped to critically low levels, residents of Johannesburg were hit with stringent water restrictions.
However, normal rain patterns returned to Johannesburg in early 2017 and, thankfully, the situation never reached the stage where residents were forced to resort to the extreme measures Cape Town, where I live, has implemented to keep the taps running.
But, by the end of 2017, when the drought was a distant memory, the authorities once again warned that they might have to introduce restrictions to throttle water use, as consumption had soared because of hot weather and wastage.
So last week, when I flew to Johannesburg, which despite the possibility of new restrictions, has been blessed with plentiful rain this summer, I was keen to find out whether people were now treating water as a precious resource.
Just the day before I had read an alarming news report in which experts warned that a combination of increased consumption and delays in infrastructure upgrades could lead to the city’s taps running dry in the next few years. While rain over Johannesburg helps fill reservoirs, small dams and privately owned suburban rainwater tanks, Johannesburg’s main source of water is the Vaal Dam, which lies 80 miles from the city. The delivery mechanism for bringing the water to the city from the dam is dangerously old and in need of repair.
You must remember — Johannesburg is the industrial heart of South Africa. And with a population of over 9 million (including surrounding suburbs), its demand for water is also far higher than in Cape Town, with a population of 4 million. But unlike coastal Cape Town, Johannesburg is many hours from the sea, so it has fewer options for accessing potable water: desalinating nearby seawater, for example, is not possible.
Despite all this, as my flight descended in Johannesburg last week, I noticed that the city looked green and vibrant, with small sparkling dams and lakes visible, and hundreds of bright blue swimming pools.
As we disembarked, a soft rain was falling, and it was easy to spot the Capetonians like me. While most people scuttled for shelter, a few of us stood for several moments, eyes to the sky in wonder, savoring the rain droplets falling on our faces.
Stopping off to use the toilet on my way to collect my bag, I was struck by a lack of signs requesting that people use water sparingly. Washing my hands Cape Town-style — a quick wetting and then soaping with the water off, before another quick spurt to remove the foam — I watched a man alongside me leave the tap running while he soaped and washed his hands.
Without thinking, I turned to him and suggested he turn off the tap. His response was to tell me to mind my own business. I bit my tongue and stayed silent, but I wanted to say that saving water was everyone’s business.
It was largely the same attitude wherever I went, with the relatively recent drought forgotten and water on tap taken for granted. People topped up swimming pools without a moment’s thought. And, more than once, family and friends jokingly told me I was welcome to visit and take as deep a bath, or as long a shower, as I wanted.
When I told them how we have to cope in Cape Town — 90-second showers, recycling every drop we use and queuing at natural springs to collect free water — most thought I was exaggerating.
Two days later, I drove north to the small town of Louis Trichardt, less than two hours from the Zimbabwe border. With a farming community on its doorstep, the townsfolk clearly understood the value of water. Every house seemed to have at least one — often more — tanks to catch and store rainwater.
That evening, as dark storm clouds gathered above, I joined a colleague for a game of bowls — a sport similar to curling, but played on a green lawn. Within 45 minutes of the game beginning, the skies opened and heavy rain bucketed down, drenching us in seconds. Everyone else ran for cover, but I hesitated for a moment, enjoying the first heavy rain I’d experienced in ages.
And that night, as I lay in bed listening to the pouring rain outside, I drifted off fantasizing of ways to take it back to Cape Town.
On my drive back to Johannesburg to catch a flight home, I passed several horse trailers piled high with huge rainwater tanks. Stopping for fuel, I chatted briefly with a driver, who said his load was destined for Cape Town.
Arriving the next day in Cape Town, I was quickly wrenched back to reality: All over the airport were signs urging people to save water, and everywhere on my drive home was brown and tinder dry.
But there is some good news for my thirsty town — thanks to decreased water usage, Day Zero, when taps are turned off, has been pushed back to July 9.
Even with that news, I spent the next day queuing for almost two hours with dozens of other people at a natural spring to collect free water. We all knew that as Day Zero slides further into the future, this still remains our everyday reality.