Everything grows in Cape Town. Forests blanket entire mountains in green; branches and vines spill over garden fences; tiny sprouts fill the smallest cracks in the roads. Life is overwhelmingly profuse – it might be due to the cool air that rolls in from the shore, or the sunlight that shrouds the city in gold. Or, perhaps, there’s something in the water.
Yet Cape Town has never had enough of this water: South Africa is considered a water-scarce region and has endured regular droughts. As a result, the city has developed countless of ways to conserve water, and many residents are conscious of their water consumption. In 2015, the city was honored with an award for it’s Water Conservation and Demand Management (WCWDM) program.
However, since then, usable water has rapidly decreased. Dams and water sources for the city’s four million residents are continually lowering. At last, the worst of fears has manifested into a potential reality: Cape Town could run out of water completely. This day has ominously been called ‘Day Zero’.
Needless to say, SAS families in Cape Town (my own included) have been preparing for this day – should it occur. “My godfather and his wife and three children live in Cape Town. They are very serious about conserving water.” Junior Gabby Overtveld explained.
“[My family] stays with them when we visit the city. They keep buckets in the showers to collect water for their garden.”
Unwashed hair has become a norm for many living in Cape Town.
This approach to water is common: hand-washing dishes, air-drying clothes, and growing drought-tolerant plants are other conventional ways of keeping household water consumption down. Yet, with the daily water consumption limit dropping to 50 liters a day, Capetonians have had to resort to more unconventional methods. When I visited in January, I was surprised to learn of the popular phrase, ‘If it’s brown, flush it down; If it’s yellow, let it mellow’. This is, just as it sounds, an effort to lower the number of daily toilet flushes.
On top of this, unwashed hair has become a norm for many living in Cape Town, because daily showers have also become too water-consuming.”On interim, our guide was from Cape Town. He told us that he can’t shower much at all and is constantly reusing water” Gabby added.
Once the city runs dry, the plan is that water will be dispersed from collection points. This method is both inefficient, and for people like my grandmother, inaccessible. Consequently, my family bought her two plastic water tanks that will be filled with water collected from a stream or borehole. While this would supply sufficient water, it still creates risk: the water is green, cloudy, and its purity is questionable.
“I really hope [Day Zero] never happens. But at the rate it’s going, it might.”
However, despite the actions of my family, SAS families, and other South Africans, there is still an issue that persists: some people do not take the water regulations seriously. Gabby expressed her concern for this: “I really hope [Day Zero] never happens. But at the rate it’s going, it might just happen”. While some people are in blatant ignorance of the crisis, others have used it to fuel political conflict.
Some news sources go so far as to claim the crisis is driven by politics more than drought. Cape Town is governed by the Democratic Alliance, while the national government is dominated by an adversary party: the African National Congress. In light of the upcoming elections in 2019, some speculate that the ANC is using the water crisis to undermine the Democratic Alliance. They claim that the ANC has neglected its responsibility to allocate water in the Western Cape, resulting in overconsumption and inevitable crisis.
Cape Town is the home of many SAS families and millions of South Africans, and even a simple connection to the city is enough to empathize with this crisis. Regardless of the cause, be it politically motivated or not, the most important thing now is the actions of South Africans. The world watches their response and acknowledges the underlying warning signal of the dangers of ignorance (if not climate change as well). In the end, the best outcome of that we can hope for in this situation is a push towards more sustainable and preventative solutions in South Africa and around the world.