“It’s actually easy, once you get used to doing it,” 16-year-old Azzara Makan told me when I asked how her routine has changed in recent months. “There’s a bucket in the shower to catch grey water, then you use that water later to flush the toilet.”
Makan’s calm acceptance is common in Cape Town, South Africa, where residents are facing an unprecedented water shortage. In this city of almost 4 million people, municipal water has been placed under drastic restrictions in order to push back ‘Day Zero,’ when the city’s government will be forced to shut off residents’ taps. If and when Day Zero arrives, the government has told its citizens to expect to wait each day at military-guarded stations around the city to collect water for their personal consumption.
Originally forecast for April, and then June, Day Zero has now been indefinitely pushed back as a result of reduced pressure across the system and a dramatic reduction in water usage by residents. As a result, Western media—which published frequent reports on the dystopian-sounding Day Zero earlier this year—has now largely lost interest in the crisis. Yet Cape Town remains under strict ‘6B’ water restrictions. Each person is allotted a daily limit of 50 litres (13 US gallons). For perspective, in the US, the average eight-minute shower uses 65 litres.
Because of current water use restrictions, the days of filling swimming pools or washing cars using municipal water are over. The people I spoke with were trying to maintain optimism and find ways to adapt. Makan agreed that life would get even more challenging if and when Day Zero arrives. “It’ll get difficult if they expect us to queue every day for water,” she told me. “Then I won’t be able to go to school anymore.” In a city with a great divide between rich and poor, socio-economic status dictates how the crisis is experienced. In a recent column in News24, it was said the poorest citizens have lived under Day Zero-like conditions for years.
What has changed for many is a newfound obsession with water usage, and more importantly, avoiding wasting water. Neighbours can track each others’ real-time water usage on a public website. I heard many refer to this tool as a way to keep their neighbours honest and see which areas are using more than they should.
For those living outside of Cape Town, the assumption is that the water shortage is a result of climate change. Cape Town has had three straight years of drought—a dry period that experts believe should occur once every 300 or 400 years. Without consistent rainfall, the city’s reservoirs have not filled.
As far back as 1990, there were reports that Cape Town’s water supply was reaching dangerously low levels, and was developing an over-reliance on rainwater for municipal water. Mismanagement is partly to blame, along with a population that outgrew its infrastructure.
Tony Turton, an environmental advisor and leading voice on the South African water crisis for over a decade, believes the current situation has been exacerbated by climate change, but not caused by it. He told me the country’s complicated politics are also complicit.
“Water has been weaponized by the ruling ANC [African National Congress] under the Presidency of Jacob Zuma,” Turton said in an interview. Although Zuma stepped down in February, Turton believes the government used water scarcity and its controlling power over the dams surrounding the city to punish the opposing minority party, the Democratic Alliance, which governs Cape Town. The ANC reportedly delayed funds to aid the crisis and did not recognize the region as drought-stricken until late 2017.
The city’s deputy mayor, Ian Neilson, agrees that politics have complicated the picture, although he expressed this view less emphatically than Turton. “We’d like the ANC to come to the party a bit more on this,” he told me, implying that the national government could be doing more to help. “But, let’s not forget that the people of this city have done wonderful things. We’ve cut our water usage in half in just a year’s time.”
This is no small feat, and to achieve it, Cape Town residents have become obsessed with water usage by necessity, partly due to a proposed doubling of water prices over the next two years.
I met with Joshua de Swardt, the head bartender at the Café Caprice, a hotspot in idyllic Camps Bay Beach. The Caprice has done everything it can to be fully self-sustaining in preparation for Day Zero. “Soon, there will be no more strawberry daiquiris on the menu, no more frozen margaritas,” Joshua told me, explaining that these drinks use up to three glasses of water to make. The goal is to be completely off the municipal water grid, if and when the city goes dry. Behind the restaurant are giant tanks to catch rainwater, and a filtration system to turn it into usable water.
I asked if de Swardt if he'd leave Cape Town if the water runs out. “No way, man,” he said. “This is home.”
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