Field Notes: Drought in Cape Town

Cape Town is said to be suffering its worst drought in a hundred years. Resident Jon Roberts considers what lessons can be learned.

 I thought I had a fairly good idea of what that meant. A drought was just about as obvious an event as one could imagine. The idea was, in a nutshell, that it had not rained in a long time and there simply was no water. Bricks would be popped into toilet cisterns and gardens would brown under water restrictions. Should it get really bad, some well meaning, but ultimately patronising, first world musicians might write a song. Eventually, at the final desperate hour, rain would arrive and life would go on.

There may be places where a drought might very well be about there not being any water at all for a season or two. But I would think that these few extreme places would probably have long since adapted to such an environment. Cape Town is certainly not such a place. There is water all around us and it rains every winter, drought or no drought. The issue is more about having the wrong sort of water when and where it is needed. Our drought is also not an event in the sense that we can pinpoint exactly when it began or when it might end.  Rather, it’s a complex and changing series of events, over the last decade. The only certainly describable truth is that the stored water near Cape Town, which sustains the population of the city and its surrounds, will run out. The taps of Cape Town will at some point run dry.

The myriad of causes of our lack of water give ample wiggle room for blame. For the most part, we believed that the problem was a ‘one in a hundred years drought’ underpinned by a vague reference to global warming. This causality is politically expedient to those who might lose votes, should poor planning be revealed. Four years of lower than average rainfall certainly has played a large part in the problem. Cycles of low rainfall are however relatively common and Cape Town’s rainfall has never been particularly predictable, with or without changing global weather patterns. Certainly far more statistically relevant, is that Cape Town's population has grown dramatically in past number of years and also that during this same period, there has been no new major investment in the provision of water. These last facts are conveniently not mentioned often, by those who occupy podiums. The dramatic increase in consumption is nonetheless the most important contributor to our problem and herein lies the rub.

A drought in human terms is relative. Water is only in short supply if a relatively higher amount is being used than is being stored. In other words, a drought is as much about how much water you are using, as it is about how much you are receiving. Maybe more so, as your use is at least controllable.  It is here that fascinating interpersonal politics have played a role. As is the case with all overconsumption, everywhere in the world, we all looked over the fence before looking at ourselves. The rich have blamed the poor and poor, the rich. The white folk blame the black and the black, well you get the picture. Blaming past overconsumption of water on Cape Town's largely pale suburbanites does however look fair. Beautiful lawns use a lot of it. But also fair, however, is that these suburbanites seem to be making an effort. Nothing scares the Joneses into action like the prospect of crapping in the garden, once the toilets stop working. And scared we were. Our mayor, who has now thankfully stepped aside in managing the City's drought response, chose to try scaring us into compliance. The ominous “day zero” phrase was coined to describe the day the taps would run dry and we would queue for a daily water allowance. Dystopian descriptions of water distribution points, complete with soldiers and barbed wire were gleefully provided and the response was predictably panicked. Housewives scuffled in upmarket supermarkets and we all grabbed a few dozen bottles of mineral water, just in case. Under such instances, hoarding of tap water is commonplace and counteracts any savings. It felt helpless. Fortunately, the subsequent management has been more reasoned and considerably more successful. Rather than hoarding, we have all learned to use less water and, more importantly, to reuse what we can. It looks like we have secured our future by simply learning to be less wasteful of what has become a scarce resource. These lessons are valuable.

When potable water flows from multiple taps in your house with minimal effort and even less cost, it is very easy to become complacent. Once shaken out of that complacency, certain inalienable truths seem obvious. It is madness to water your plants with rain that falls a hundred kilometres away while the rain that falls on your own roof is guttered away, as waste. Even worse, is that the rain from a hundred kilometres away is filtered and treated to a drinking quality before we flush it down the toilet or pour over our plants (which actually prefer the untreated stuff we dispose of). The global trend to a more mindful existence seems to have overlooked our unthinking consumption of water. It is not alright to use nine litres of drinking quality water to flush a single used tissue. Water your plants with rainwater. Flush your toilets with your grey water. Big baths are fine for special occasions (if you don’t have a drought) but then share your bath with someone special or at least water your garden with your bathwater. It’s not complicated.

Almost everyone that I have chatted to has found the same satisfaction in harvesting and using wisely their own water that they found in producing their own electricity or carrots. However when attempting to be more self-sufficient and mindful, we had somehow overlooked water. It falls pristine from the sky for free and it can be reused, without treatment, for multiple secondary uses. Your most basic tool is little more than an old bucket. There simply cannot be an easier addition to a mindful life.  Having survived on little or no tap water daily for a year now, I don’t think that I can ever go back to my unintentionally wasteful past, regardless of how much cheap treated water my future self will have available. The satisfaction of using your own is simply too good to give up.




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