Last Drop: An Update on the Cape Town Water Crisis

“You know what to do with the bucket?”

We knew this travel experience would be different when we began to Google how to go about shampooing with a bucket. This was on July 12. At this point, the reservoir was just below 50% and level 6b water restrictions were still in place. Although Day Zero had been called off, Cape Town’s motto was still “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” and the scarcity of water had transformed it into liquid gold, a sacred resource not to be wasted.

Upon landing in Cape Town International Airport, we were met with emboldened letters and hundreds of one liter water bottles hanging overhead reading “Water is Our Lifeline.”

Signs entering Cape Town International Airport reminding visitors to conserve water

Water is our lifeline. We are bound both to and by its trickling streams and flowing rivers. We may want to deny our reliance and our dependence on nature, but with every drought, we once again see our connection. Water does in fact equal life.

The signs only continued as we threw our backpacks over our shoulders and continued on, out of the terminals, down the stairs and into a taxi. “Less water, more solutions.” “Don’t waste a drop.” “Defend water.” The city was filled with reminders of urgency on billboards, hotel front desks, graffiti, advertisements, bathroom mirrors, everywhere.

Street art along the Cape Town waterfront

“I’ve lived here for 8 years. We are surrounded by water, but we have none. They’ve kicked Day Zero, but it is still bad. We have 25 liters a day per person,” shared our Uber driver as we zigged in and out of the hills surrounding the city. For context, that’s enough for a 90 second shower, a half-gallon of drinking water, and one toilet flush. With only 6-7 gallons per day, every drop truly does count.

The Cape Town water crisis arises from a combination of issues – three years of drought, poor water management and delayed reactions. With a population rising to 3.7 million, the city and its outdated water infrastructure can no longer handle the demand for water. During the first two years of the drought, the city government failed to place harsh restrictions on water usage. Rather, a series of vague plans were released to be “water conscious” and “keep usage in mind.” For the most part, a majority of the population just crossed their fingers and prayed for rain.

It wasn’t until September that residents were met with level 5 restrictions, mandating a limit of 87 liters of water per day per person. At this point the dams and reservoirs were at 30% capacity. To worsen the matter, only 39% of residents complied with the mandates put in place (Dixon, 2018). Fees were imposed. And the water restriction was lowered even further. It will stay this way until the reservoirs reach 85% capacity. The City of Cape Town was met with a tragedy of the commons and it wasn’t going well.

During our time in Cape Town, although the same restrictions on water usage were in place, the reservoirs were on the rise. However, we were confronted with pressing stories from various hostel and AirBnb hosts of the drastic changes made to accommodate for Day Zero.

“How bad did it get?”

“At one point the government was going to take away private water sources as a last-ditch measure. Those water tanks down there, they were going to take them. The family down the hill had an $80,000 rand (~$6,000 USD) penalty for going over the water limit. We can normally fit at least 15 people in our household, but we are listed as a two person household so we haven’t been able to host at full capacity or really at all.”

Tips for avoiding Day Zero were plastered everywhere. “Take stop-start showers. Flush with greywater. Only flush when necessary. Use take away dishes which require no cleaning. Purchase bottled mineral water. Collect your shower water. Don’t run the taps in the bathroom for shaving or teeth brushing. Use efficient shower heads.” While sitting for a meal, restaurants would limit a glass of water with dinner to one. Waterless hand sanitizer became their best friend.

Small businesses and individual citizens weren’t all that were affected either. Severe limitations were further placed on commercial businesses. We cringed with pity every time we would pass a laundromat. Certain businesses had it extra difficult. Commercial properties were to reduce consumption by 45% compared to their 2015 pre-drought consumption. Irrigation with municipal drinking water was prohibited. However, what came out of such restrictions was what truly made traveling throughout Cape Town inspiring.

A purple Table Mountain

With every breath and step, we clambered over the sandstone and granite cliffs. Each staple and ladder brought us one step closer to the top of Lion’s Head, one of the three mountain peaks surrounding the city. Reaching the top, you are met with breathtaking views of the distinguishable city skyline, or rather mountain skyline. The expansive southern Atlantic Ocean surrounds you and the sunset turns the mountain range a glowing shade of yellow, slowly muting to a deep purple. Table Mountain stood proud and tall to our right. The famed mountain itself took its own necessary measures to combat the drought. After visitor hours, waste water is transported to the base of the mountain via the Table Mountain cable car and is then pumped into the municipal sewer system. Taps were turned off and compost waterless toilets replaced ablutions at the top of the mountain. Waterless hand sanitizer stations were installed. One of the top tourist attractions in the city did its part.

Although some places within the city were struggling, others lived in their own water haven. After a ferry ride out to Robben Island, I landed on the island prison that held Nelson Mandela for 19 of his 27 years in jail. There, they were busy taking hour long showers. Robben Island served as an example of possible solutions to the drought. Although desalination is highly costly, the small island off the coast of Cape Town installed a desalination water plant prior to the drought. Producing 500,000 liters of water per day, the small former prison town lived worry free. Furthermore, with a solar plant producing 500 kilowatts of electricity, they had saved 2,000 tons of carbon emissions.

However as we were not living on Robben Island, we did our part. Who needs showers anyway? Every drop was watched, which led to a few comical endeavors of trying to wash our hair and shave. Before we discovered the technique of filling up a cup of water, shaving entailed rapidly turning on the faucet, wetting the razor, and turning it off. Pile on the shaving cream. Rinse. Repeat. Like the signs said, not a drop to be wasted.

Yet, with environmental news perpetually disheartening, the tragedy that struck Cape Town filled me not with discouragement nor worry, but rather hope. Higher income families cut water usage by 80%, with lower income families cutting back by 40%. People were doing what they were able to. The city decreased its water consumption from 1.2 billion liters per day in 2015 to 516 million liters per day in 2018. Other cities don’t even compare. When Melbourne was met with extreme drought, it took the city 12 years to do what Cape Town did in three. California was only able to decrease water consumption by 27% during the severe drought that struck the state a few years ago (De Villiers, 2018).

People were making progress. Drastic progress. Real progress. Although a certain level of carelessness led to the drought in the first place, concerted effort and consciousness created a wave of change. Every person we encountered gently reminded us of the value of water and to save like a local. Water was no longer a resource taken for granted, wasted drop by drop. It was conserved, saved and valued. Cape Town is the story of one of the first major urban cities in the world to almost run out of water. But it is also the story of what is possible when a city bands together to reverse environmental dilemmas. So yes, we do know what to do with that bucket.

 

Sources:

Cape Town’s Water Crisis. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.capetowndrought.com/

De Villiers, J. (2018, March 7). How Cape Town avoided Day Zero and cut its water usage by 50% in 3 years. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.co.za/how-cape-town-cut-its-water-usage-by-50-in-3-years-it-took-melbourne-12-years-to-do-the-same-2018-3

Dixon, R. (2018, April 01). How Cape Town found water savings California never dreamed of. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/world/africa/la-fg-south-africa-drought-20180401-story.html

 

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