We’ve been hearing that “water is the new oil” for at least a decade, but the people of Cape Town, South Africa — where we are wrapping up our five months partout — are living the reality, and we are living it with them.
Primarily as a result of a three-year drought, this city of nearly 4 million is in danger of running out of water. “Day Zero” is what they call the date when the taps will be turned off to all but hospitals, schools and a few other vital users, and residents will start getting their water one bucketful at a time from 200 distribution points around the city.
When we decided to make Cape Town our EU visa reprieve, Day Zero was set for April. Because of effective water conservation by residents, water diversion by inland farmers and (some say) immediate intervention by the nation’s new president, the suspension of piped water currently is projected for July.
In the meantime, residents are under orders to use no more than 13.2 gallons per person per day (about six toilet flushes or less) or face fines. It is unclear to us how people monitor their usage or how the limit is enforced.
Our first AirBnB host told us that, when the magnitude of the shortage became apparent, AirBnB operators proposed en masse to stop taking reservations. “No, no!” was the official response. “Let them come.” Whether this was for PR or economic reasons is also unclear, but come the visitors still do.
In Cape Town International Airport, drought and conservation messages are now just about the first messages passengers see after landing. Hand sanitizer dispensers have mostly replaced running water in the airport restrooms, as if to underscore the point.
What does an epic water conservation campaign look like in a modern, international city?
- Massive public relations everywhere – flyers, signs, billboards, digital message boards. Overhead, on sign posts, on the backs of bathroom doors. Some clever, some plain.
- Reduced water pressure everywhere
- Universal on-off showering and a push to get people to give up showering at all one day a week
- No water at all or on-off spray from some public bathrooms
- Biodegradable paper products replacing dishes in restaurants
- Buckets in every shower stall (including luxury hotels) to catch shower run-off and instructions on how to flush the toilet with what you catch
- Unflushed public toilets per instructions that cut across the grain of what we’ve always been taught
- Private water tanks parked where cars once stood so people can collect and store more grey water than a bucket will hold by doing things like draining used water from their washing machines
- Dead grass, empty fountains, closed swimming pools, unwashed cars
- Warnings that hotel bookings may be canceled without warning.
And on and on. A $50 million pop-up desalinization plant is on its way from Dubai. Some beauty salons are beginning to require customers to bring their own water for shampoos. Necessity breeds an infinite number of inventions.
Doris is a native Californian so this is not her first water crisis. As a beginning news reporter, the biggest story she reported was California’s water shortage of 1976-77.
Covering the city of Fullerton in Orange County, she remembers writing stories about where residents could pick up free building bricks to reduce the water volume in their toilet tanks and extolling the merits of flow restrictors for kitchen water faucets. She distinctly remembers city leaders publicly urging, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.”
Measures like these worked. Southern California cut its water use by 15% almost overnight. More significantly, water-use products and practices changed forever. By 1980, toilets that used the usual 5-8 gallons per flush were gone from the market, replaced by ever more-efficient “low-flow” models. Public water system price tiering making water more expensive the more you used became commonplace. Grey-water reclamation projects sprouted like weeds in public lawns, golf-courses and other thirsty patches of earth. Water conservation became at least a consideration.
However, Cape Town illustrates that even systemic changes like these may not be enough for a growing world population with limited water supplies. Cape Town’s reservoirs were full just three years ago. Water consumption has remained flat despite population growth. Drought came, Day Zero now looms.
Do Doris and Louis feel guilty for being among Cape Town’s water consumers, even temporarily? Louis says Doris always feels guilty about everything, but neither of us is losing sleep over this one. If we were not occupying the AirBnBs we do, someone else would be, and they might not be as water-conscious as we are.
Far more critically, if visitors stay away from Cape Town, the possibility of Day Zero will be immediately outstripped by the certainty that tens of thousands of working poor in the Cape’s service industries will lose their jobs and be unable to support themselves and their families. The chasm between the haves and the have-nots would gape even wider.
Given the impossible math of growing world populations, shrinking water supplies and a warming earth, this won’t be the last Day Zero on the calendar. The new water habits we are picking up in Cape Town may be the most lasting souvenirs of our visit. We can hope they help forestall a Day Zero wherever else we go.
In the rear-view mirror:
- Vineyards (“wine farms” in these parts) with jaw-dropping backdrops
- Beach towns with jaw-dropping backdrops
- Tidal pools created by shags of ancient rock
- Penguins! Cute couples mated for life
Coming Soon: Regime Change Tourism