Last week, authorities announced that Cape Town’s water supply had dwindled more than expected. After three years of South Africa’s worst drought in a century, usable water in Cape Town’s water dams now sits near 13%. Last Wednesday, officials announced water dams were at 17.2% usable water and decreasing by 1.4% each day. As lines to receive water from local springs increase, there’s no end in sight for the Cape Town water crisis.
Authority’s have announced that “Day Zero,” the day all taps in Cape Town will be turned off, will now fall on April 12th, much sooner than expected. Four million residents have been told to “save water as if your life depends on it” and to limit water use to 50 liters (11 gallons) per day.
The drought and subsequent water shortage have hit the Western Cape, South Africa’s main agricultural region, hard, causing food prices and unemployment rates to rise across the country.
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Cutting Cape Town Water Use
In Cape Town, 65% of the water is consumed by residential use, so cutting individual use in homes is priority number one. Rations are expected to drop to 25 liters a day after Day Zero. To put that number into perspective, consider that flushing a toilet just once requires 15 liters of water. Residents will have to line up at one of 200 water collection points to receive their daily ration.
While the mayor, Patricia de Lille, has accused residents of not doing enough to cut down on Cape Town water usage, some Capetonians have become quite creative. Residents are already turning off toilets cisterns and limiting flushing. Water from bathing and cleaning is instead reserved to flush toilets. Gardens are now watered with water left over from cooking. Conservationists point out that watering plants with water left over from cooking vegetables and grains can even be healthier for plants. Leftover tea and coffee can also be thrown into the garden. To that note, conservationists recommend skipping your morning coffee; coffee wastes water by causing dehydration, forcing you to drink more water. When down to 25 liters a day, every cup of water counts.
Between pristine beaches and nearby wine regions, Cape Town is a major tourist hub. The tourist sector is doing their part to reduce water use. Hotels are sourcing water for pools from the ocean and asking visitors to respect Cape Town water usage rules. One live entertainment show, “The Illusionists Direct from Broadway,” has dropped water from its acts. Specifically, the “water tank torture cell performance” has been canceled because of the Cape Town water crisis.
The leader of the provincial government, Helen Zille has described Day Zero as “the disaster of all disasters,” urging residents to limit use to 50 liters a day. Zille wrote in a column:
“Turn off the tap of your toilet cistern and use all of the grey water in your house from washing, save it, and put it into your toilet cistern. No-one should be showering more than twice a week at this stage. You need to save water as if your life depends on it because it does.”
Zille has said that she only showers once every three days because of the drought, “I regard oily hair in a drought to be as much of a status symbol as a dusty car.”
Residents have reported that the water from the dam has been causing stomach issues for small children, raising questions about the cleanliness of the water.
Tensions Run High
Even by last fall it had become clear that Cape Town’s water dams were dangerously low. If conservation techniques had been commonplace in homes, hotels, and businesses, there’s no saying for how much longer the water could have extended. Mayor de Lille, shared her frustration:
Despite our urging for months, 60 percent of Capetonians are callously using more than 87 litres per day. It is quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards Day Zero. We can no longer ask people to stop wasting water. We must force them.
An Australian study on droughts found that people are only willing to make the sacrifices to convenience that save water if they trust the authorities. Residents of Cape Town have questioned why their government hasn’t done more to prevent the drought. Protesters have taken to the streets to demand a solution for the government, claiming that the government has mismanaged the water crisis. Some claim there are many leaks in the water pipes that the government has neglected to repair, while handing out defective water management devices to citizens.
Some believe a political rivalry between Cape Town’s ruling party, the Democratic Alliance, and South Africa’s ANC government is one of the reasons for the governments mismanagement. Since Cape Town is a coastal city, desalinization is an option for increasing the water supply. Four desalination plants are being built, but three are already behind schedule. Not one of the desalination plants will be functional by Day Zero, leading many residents to blame political corruption for the delays.
The Australian drought study also found that people will only save water if residents believe the no one else is getting away with overuse. In Cape Town, gangs have been hoarding water in violation with daily limits, hoping that they will later be able to sell the water at exorbitant rates to desperate people.
Conservationists recommend a number of ways households can reduce water usage during a drought. First, you should check all your faucets & pipes and repair any leaks. Of course the sink should never be left running. To avoid wasting water washing dishes, start using paper plates, ideally a compostable variety. While many Cape Town residents are skipping showers altogether, if you absolutely have to shower, use a bucket to collect extra water to be used for cleaning, flushing the toilet, or watering plants. In between showers, baking soda can be used as a dry shampoo and powerful deodorant.