Why Cape Town's Crippling Water Crisis Isn't All Bad

Why Cape Town's Crippling Water Crisis Isn't All Bad

A protestor preps a placard prior to taking part in a demonstration against the Cape Town city council for the way it has dealt with water shortages, on Jan. 28, 2018.

SourceRODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Because we all could better understand how much H20 we use.

Don’t get me wrong. My city’s water crisis is not good sh*t. Thanks to an unprecedented drought (and a few man-made factors), the taps in Cape Town are expected to run dry on April 12, after which all 4 million residents will have to stand in line to collect daily rations. If things go badly, “Day Zero” could come sooner. If things go (very) well, we could be saved by the winter rains that should kick in around May. It’s caused untold economic upheaval, but also psychological damage. Try not using a toilet in the conventional manner for four months and you might begin to understand.

queenofthedesert

Patricia, Queen of the Desert

But the water shortage has also been a force for good. Because it’s making residents rethink how we use precious H2O. The Facebook group Water Shedding Western Cape has been offering up countless water-saving, recycling and harvesting tips to its 116,000 members and beyond. Like flushing a No. 2 with a quarter of a pail of recycled washing machine water or showering a family of four with a 1-gallon pesticide sprayer — think about that one for a moment. There’s also plenty of much needed “dry” humor. My favorite? The Patricia Queen of the Desert meme featuring our mayor, Patricia de Lille.

“We have saved millions of liters of water every day through the Facebook page alone,” says Deon Smit, a retired fireman who is heavily involved in both the Facebook page and the nonprofit Water Shortage South Africa — an organization that has just secured 28,000 liters of bottled water for distribution to old-age homes in anticipation for Day Zero. It was paid for by donations from members of the public and transported free of charge by local truckers. The community response to “the crisis has made me proud to be South African,” says Smit.

Crisis creates opportunity.

Kevin Winter, lead researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Future Water Institute

The water crisis is also forcing the municipality to rethink where the water comes from. “No amount of academic pleading could have had the same impact,” says Kevin Winter, lead researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Future Water Institute. “Crisis creates opportunity.” Traditionally, Cape Town has relied on surface reservoirs — which doesn’t make much sense in a place with low rainfall (even in good years) and evaporation is sky-high. But now, says Winter, they’re finally doing the things that cities like Perth, in parched western Australia, have done for decades. (It took a crippling drought for the penny to drop there too.) Cape Town’s efforts might be too late to avoid Day Zero, but the projects do point to a long-term solution that should mean “we no longer have to limp from one summer to the next by the seat of our pants,” observes Winter.

The prospect of Day Zero is terrifying. Disease could spread like wildfire and there’s a very real possibility that the desperate circumstances will create violent tension in our very unequal city. But when it’s all over, I know I won’t return to my wasteful pre-crisis ways, although I won’t miss having to “wash” my hair with corn flour! And I like to think that the frenzy of the past six months will make residents and municipalities all over the world think about how much water they use and where it comes from. Guess I’m just a glass half-full kind of a guy.

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