How we survive the Cape Town drought

The drought is holding Cape Town in a firm grip and we get many questions about the weather. Or rather: many of you wonder if it has started to rain as yet. The short answer is no. And that is quite normal. The rains shouldn’t start until earliest April or May. If we are lucky we will get some lovely rainy days in June and July. But for now, it’s dry and warm.

Already last year, the City of Cape Town had water restrictions in place and around this time of the year we were allowed to use 100 litres of water per person per day. We are now down to half of that.

When I interviewed the Mayor of Cape Town Patricia de Lille she said: “We cannot see drought as something that may or may not happen. It has to be seen as the new normal so that we are prepared and more resilient in the future.”

Today, many blame the City for having done too little too late. Patricia de Lille has been stripped of her party-membership (due to allegations of maladministration and corruption) as well as the responsibility for managing the water crisis.

The natural disaster we are living through didn’t come as a surprise. Every city authority has known for more than a decade that Cape Town risk running out of water. And here we are.

Will Cape Town be the first major metropole in the world to have to close the taps and ask almost four million (except the 14 per cent living in informal settlements already collecting water at water stands) to collect water at 200 water stations around the city? I don’t know.

Since January, the political leaders have changed their tune.

Cape Town is the only city that has been run by the national opposition DA (Democratic Alliance) for more than one election period. It cannot afford to fail.

So, when the leader of the DA, Mmusi Maimane, launched #DefeatDayZero on January 24, he did so with a lot of humbleness. “I am very aware that there is a lot of public unhappiness, concern, and confusion as to how the DA-run City of Cape Town is responding to the situation,” he said. Promising that all of that was about to change, concluding that the only way to defeat Day Zero is for all of us to use less water and work together.

There has been a lot of blame game too, who would expect anything else. On the political level: the national ANC-government is responsible for the provision of bulk water to municipalities. The municipalities are responsible for the distribution. In an equitable way.

But though this is perfectly clear, there has still been a lot of debate about who’s fault it is that the dams are drying out. Water has become politicized. That’s for certain.

And then we have the finger-pointing amongst citizens. Residents of formal areas think there is wastage in the informal areas, and the residents of informal areas think that the formal areas are consuming far too much water.

However, data from the city shows that formal residential consumers use between 55 and 65 per cent of the water. The informal areas which are home to 14 per cent of the city’s population, consume only 5 per cent of the total water supply.

Despite all this. A few weeks ago, Martine Visser and Johanna Brühl from the University of Cape Town, presented some interesting research. It turned out that during last year: Capetonians have come together.

Visser and Brühl conclude:

“When people are called upon to rally around a “public good” such as conserving water, they are more likely to do so if they believe they are working together to achieve a common goal. Despite the finger-pointing and appearance of panic in drought-stricken Cape Town, citizens in this apparently divided city are showing unprecedented levels of co-operation.”

That’s very encouraging findings.

And for the citizens who still don’t save water, they can expect a call from the City. The water management device programme was introduced last year and any household that use excessive water over a long period of time, risk having a water management device installed on their property. The device will restrict the daily water allocation to the property and when the quota has been used the water is turned off – until the next day.

So, what else is the City doing? There are a number of short-term solutions such as three smaller desalination plants set to come online from the end of March.

Drilling continues at the aquifer on the Cape Flats and the aquifer in Atlantis is already producing 12 million litres of water per day. But it’s not enough. To put that into perspective, with the restrictions we have today the City still needs 450 million litres of water per day. With the current usage of more than 500 million litres of water per day, we might hit Day Zero in mid-July.

Therefore, the City must look into bolder and more controversial solutions – such as recycling of wastewater. It’s been done in Windhoek and Singapore. It can be done here.

Those who can afford drill their own boreholes. Others buy huge water tanks so that they are prepared to harvest the winter rains. And

in the meantime, we try to go about our normal business – in a water-wise way using less than 50 litres of water per day. Most of us showers for less than 90 seconds. And not every day. The water from the shower is reused to flush the toilet according to the Capetonian device: If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down. We use hand-sanitizer. We use the same water glass the whole day. We don’t wash clothes as often – and we’ve stopped washing our car. Water has become the main topic on any dinner party.

At the few fresh-water springs, in and around the city, people line up to fill their containers. Police were called in to calm the situation when chaos crept into the queues one day. So just imagine what it would be like if we all have to collect water at some 200 standpipes. We don’t want to reach that point. So, we hope for rains. And we keep on saving water.

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