CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA: LIFE IN A DROUGHT
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By Stuart Smith
"The only thing I could think about today was not even that it was so hot. I just kept thinking...all this evaporation!".
It is 36°C in Cape Town, South Africa and I am speaking to Kristy Charlton, an elementary school teacher, by video call. The water levels which supply her city are dangerously low. The government anticipates the city will run out of water on June 9th at the current levels of consumption. On this day, dubbed 'Day 0' or 'D-Day', the taps will be turned off. People will then need to queue across the city to receive a daily ration of 25L. At the moment, whether at home, work or school, they are restricted to 50L of municipal water,
But sticking to 50L requires strict discipline - the Canadian daily average is 235L. Showering is no longer an experience, it is a mission. "While I'm waiting for it to warm up I'm standing in a bucket, holding up a bucket, and collecting that water for the kettle. As soon as it becomes hot you turn it off and put the bucket down. You turn the shower on and get yourself wet, then turn it off. Then you soap, turn it on again, then turn it off. Everybody is only really allowed to shower for a minute every second day." That soapy water or 'grey' water, will later be used for the once-a-day toilet flush.
She then shows me around her kitchen, demonstrating how they wash kitchenware in one bucket and vegetables in the other. The catch? These buckets have to last the whole day.
At the school where she teaches, conservation measures are even stricter: "It's quite a wealthy school in a very, very beautiful area overlooking the beach, but on the first day I saw 5L bottles of water under all the kids' desks. They had switched off all taps. No children are allowed to flush. Even if you've got poo in there you're not flushing." They use hand sanitizer rather than washing their hands. "Today in science, with my Grade 4s, we were meant to do plants. We can't do that now because we need water to grow the plants and that's completely out of the question."
It is not just the children who are learning how to deal with a water shortage. Cape Town is now a city of water saving aficionados. The amount of knowledge Kristy has about what you can do to save water and how much water you need to save is astounding. I ask her where she gets all this information. "They [the municipal government] put pointers up: 'shower for this amount of time' or 'here's a tip'. They have a whole media campaign."
Kristy has also seen and shared posts on Facebook, which demonstrate clever tips for saving water. One of them, such as a way to use much less water when washing hands or dishes by making a few simple alterations to a water bottle, has been shared 45,000 times. It is these kinds of tricks which make reaching that 50L daily limit that little bit easier.
People are also thinking a lot about the most efficient ways to use water for their specific, personal situations. "So many questions have been coming up in people's minds. What is better: a shallow bath or a shower? I can quickly turn my shower on and off. But a lot of people have the two-tap system where you have to turn that off or leave that on - so it might actually be best to keep those showers running."
As well as from the government and social media, much of the information comes from friends and other people she meets. In Cape Town, water saving ideas and drought are normal topics of conversation, even between strangers, questions on whether you flushed, weed or pooed, which to us in Canada would be a very odd topic of conversation, happen without a second thought. "It's such a normal topic for us now...it's not weird anymore." If you go to the toilet, people thank you for not flushing.
This change in societal attitudes is not just limited to conversation. "Now, when I see someone with a little bit of greasy hair, I understand." And she recalls to me a story of a friend talking about her trip to the beach in the morning, and although very hot and sweaty, the friend just using a washcloth because she knew she was going to get sweaty in the club later. "Every time I used to go out, without fail when I came back, I'd have a shower. But now I may spend a whole day without showering."
There are a few ways to get more water should one need it (without being fined or having your water supply cut off). You can collect groundwater at one of two springs in the city-but it helps to get there early. "I see a lot of people going to that spring. I go running every morning and at 5AM there are already 30 to 35 people waiting in line." Unfortunately, "the problem now with the spring is it's starting to cause a lot of fights because people are getting nervous." In response, police have been forced to monitor the queues.
Alternatively, for those with the money and in the right place at the right time, there are other options. "Today I just bought ten litres of water. I saw they were selling five litres of water, and I freaked out. I could only carry ten home, because I could only carry five on each arm." Even with a maximum purchase limit of 25L-half the allowance of municipal water per day- stores are running out of water. "People are being alerted when water comes into a shop because it's just going."
But this is not an option for everyone. She explains that being able to buy solutions to the drought is a privilege in Cape Town. "I can buy buckets for our house, buckets for our apartment, buckets to stand in, buckets for catching water outside." In addition, her family recently invested in a 1000 litre tank for the garden, for that rare moment when rain does fall (although the waiting time is six weeks - she is clearly not the only one with this idea). She estimates they have spent R800 ($87) on buckets, something she is all too aware some cannot afford. Even a 5L bottle (a lot of water at the moment) is R20 ($2), would be too expensive for their domestic worker.
She also has options for when Day 0 arrives-a very lucky position to be in. "I can go to Dubai [to live] with my family. 95 percent of South African's can't do that-they need their jobs. If it comes to it, my dad lives in Durban, I can take a two hour flight. I can get in my mum's car and drive 100km outside of the city. I can go far away and get water." But this is of course not sustainable, and for most, it is not an option.
The same afternoon we spoke, due to the effectiveness of water saving measures, Day 0 was moved back a couple of months to June 9th. But this is not without its own problems, which worry Kristy: "When the date moved closer, people panicked. But last week, when the date moved back, people relaxed. So now people aren't doing their bit. As soon as that happened (and I'm water savvy), the first thing I did was fill my water bottle with water. It was just one litre. But it changes your mind set."
And there is an even bigger threat around the corner. In March two huge races, the Cape Argus Cycle Tour and the Two Oceans Marathon will bring 50,000 people to the Western Cape. Most of whom will be foreigners to the city and will not have a clue how serious they need to be about water conservation. The sponsors of one race, the Cape Argus, will ship in two million litres of water, and they say any unused will be put into the dam.
But Kristy does not believe this will be enough. "I'm nervous about the two races coming up." She knows all too well the detrimental impact that tourists can have on their delicate water supply. "We AirBnB our house. People that come here on holiday are not savvy. You can tell people to please not or please do this-but if you're coming from, say, London you don't understand the immediate need. So you're going to flush by mistake."
And from personal experience when she moved back to Cape Town after studying abroad, it took some time to fit into the new lifestyle which was expected of her. "In July I was taking 6 minute showers. I would still use my bucket and everything but I wasn't that good. Until I started seeing people lining up [at the springs]".
It was not long before their AirBnB property was way over the 6500 litre monthly limit, and they were forced, as per the rules, to pay for and have installed a R5000 ($546) water management device on their water mains. It will automatically turn off water to the property should the household breach the monthly limit again.
"We need thousands of people to leave. But we can't tell people to go because we need the money. We AirBnB our house, how could I even say that? We need the money for our hotels.
Cape Town depends on Tourism. South Africa depends on tourism. This city lives on tourism.
It's a difficult one. It's a really, really difficult one."
And she is not reassured by the actions of the government. "They're saying that Day 0 is coming but the only solution they have for Day 0 so far is we're going to line up for water. What about families where both parents work and the kids are at school? Is the city going to come to a standstill? We have no clue after that. When do they predict the dams will return to a normal amount? When do the rains start? We know nothing-nothing. I'm talking to you now knowing nothing."