Cape Town: Where Water Is Gold

IMG_4857We’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.
50-liters1.jpgOur 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.
    Processed with MOLDIV
  • 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 shower
  • No water at all or on-off spray from some public bathrooms
    Jordan winery
  • Biodegradable paper products replacing dishes in restaurants
    Pizza resto
  • 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
    Don't flush clip
  • 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
    Airport - car rentsls
  • Warnings that hotel bookings may be canceled without warning.
    Booking noticeAnd 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
    Tide pools
  • Penguins! Cute couples mated for life

Coming Soon: Regime Change Tourism
Louis photo


14 thoughts on “Cape Town: Where Water Is Gold

  1. In the end it was maintenance issues, not water shedding but we were without water until yesterday just after lunchtime. Cape Town relies on water storage dams which are usually filled by our winter rains but we did not have enough for the last few years, plus political mismanagement – a lethal combination!


  2. Wow, not only is this a fascinating Partout, the comments are very interesting. I was thinking throughout the report that living on a sailboat does train one to use less water, less power, less space. And CPSail said the same thing. I was surprised to see showers are “OK” 6 days a week (Never On a Sunday). I would think every other day would work. I’m heartened that Day Zero is extended to July. Personal conservation works!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t thought about the sailboat analogy until Cynthia/CPSail mentioned it, but now I realize that many of the measures we are taking here now were simply routines on Louis’s boat, where you had to live off what the tank would hold for days on end. Of course, there has to be water to store to begin with. I saw a sign at the waterfront yesterday that said, “We can only save water as long as we have water to save.” As America (and the world) drains aquifers that took millennia to create and warms the earth, that becomes more of the issue.


  3. We’re rationed to 50 litres a day per person for everything. Every house has a water metre which gets read, or you can read it and send it in, so that is how water usage is monitored. Those who are over using get fitted with the dreaded WMD, (water management devices) which limits usage to 350 litres a day but the problem is that they often break, causing further leakage and wasting of water! And they charge the household R4 000 for the installation! The eastern half of the country has had good rain – some of the dams are now overflowing, so I hope it’s our turn this winter!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this information, Ann, and we hope for rain with you. As visitors, the signs of water conservation are easy to spot, but the implementaion is harder to figure out. Just curious: How are workplaces and other public places monitored? A home where folks are at school or work for long hours won’t register as much water as one with people at home, but a commercial site or workplace will register more.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. All buildings have a water metre and as far as public toilets are concerned, there might come a time when they are all closed but I hope not. I was so cross this morning because our suburb had water shedding this morning, so I couldn’t shower before I came to work! All the water was switched off from 5am! Schools are cancelling sport, so that there will be no need for pupils to shower too.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s hard to click “Like” on this. Louis and I have taken on-and-off showering to the next level: We are showering every other day. But all we are doing is playing so this is not the issue for us it would be for working people. Where does drinking water factor in? And where does it come from? We buy all our water here in bottles (which are not recycled, another environmental issue!). We assume that comes from natural sources, does not affect the shortage, and does not count into allowances. Right?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I skipped ahead— I couldn’t resist. The water shortage and efforts do make one wonder. Once in venezuela on an island off the coast I had to do the same. Showers were done with drops- no pressure. Toilets- forget it- all paper was trashed not flushed. It was memorable. The whole region thinking of the day ahead. Wow. And you are right- someone else would have been there so might as well have been you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We did not have either 24/7 water or electricity when I lived in Mexico for nearly two years. You adapt! And, if you’re smart, take the lessons with you. I have never lived with the same profligacy ever since.


  5. So interesting to read this while living on a boat full time with 70 gallons of fresh water total. We figure we use 10 gallons per day for the two of us but of course the toilet flushes with sea water and we don’t do laundry on board. But I think learning to be very careful with water, fuel and battery use is a great thing! It carries over to living on land, for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Does that count drinking water? We’re not sure how that factors in here. Humans need to drink water, too, but most of that seems to come in bottles. At least those for those who can afford it. Which is not most people.


  6. Just one thought: Capetown proposed infrastructure development several years ago that would have increased reserves and the ability to capture water. The federal government, which had to agree, refused to act. The current crisis is as much man-made as is it a result of changing natural conditions Government — our collective effort as a community — can save us, if we allow it to. Glen


    1. We have heard a lot of different local takes on the shortage. This is one. A related one is that the SA government has a death wish for Cape Town and killed infrastructure development as a result. A wholly different take is that Cape Town has always had an abundance of water so nobody saw this coming or knew how to prepare. It’s all very interesting. Dry but interesting.


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