Running Dry in Cape Town

Feb 1, 2018 by


Residents collecting spring water in Cape Town, South Africa’s second-largest city, to supplement the allowed daily quota from the municipal water supply. Credit Joao Silva/The New York Times

CAPE TOWN — This city celebrated for its natural beauty on South Africa’s southwest coast is about to run out of water.

Starting Thursday, we’re being asked to curb our use of municipal water to 13.2 gallons a day. If water levels keep falling as expected, this will be reduced to 6.6 gallons on April 16, referred to here as Day Zero, when most taps are expected to be shut off and residents will have to line up at 200 distribution points for their daily allotment. In the lead-up to Day Zero, those who don’t abide by the restrictions will face fines and may have water-monitoring devices placed on their properties.

Yes, this is actually happening in South Africa’s second-most populous city, a sprawling metropolis with nearly four million people.

Already, we have buckets under every faucet to capture water from hand washing, teeth brushing and food washing. This becomes the gray water we use to flush our toilets once or twice a day. Cafes and restaurants have signs asking customers to flush only when necessary. Showering has become a special (and rare) ritual; radio stations have put out playlists of songs lasting two minutes to help bathers keep it quick. Clothes are worn multiple times before washing; people try to keep their sheets clean longer by washing their feet before getting into bed. Some restaurants and gyms have replaced sinks with hand-sanitizing stations.

The Western Cape Province, where Cape Town is, has been in severe drought for three years. The water shortage has been amplified by the population boom here; more than a million new residents have arrived in the city in the past 15 years. The city’s desperate attempts to build desalination plants and install new groundwater pumps may help, but these solutions seem to be the equivalent of building an extra lane on an already jammed highway. The underlying causes of the shortage are likely to continue to stress the system. Other cities in drought-prone regions should pay close attention.

I’ve been living in Cape Town on and off for the past 15 years. The rest of the time, I live in San Francisco. California experienced its own multiyear drought, which ended in early 2017, so I’ve watched both places struggle with the issues of population growth, resource management and climate change.

For all the hardships here, I find many of the elements of this new lifestyle deeply satisfying. They have challenged our middle-class consumption patterns and expectations that “modern life” should yield certain blind comforts and conveniences. When you start thinking about water in small, specific quantities, seeing how much gray water it takes to flush offers a clear sense of how much drinking water we’ve been flushing away. The average bathtub here holds about 20 gallons — equivalent to about three days’ worth of water for one person under Day Zero rules.

There are many people who still aren’t doing enough to curb usage, but in a city of high inequality and concentrated wealth and privilege, there’s a leveling that’s happening. Behaviors have changed quickly and on a broad scale. The city has published maps that indicate which households are above or below the recommended water consumption level. It’s now commonplace to see an unflushed toilet in a fancy restaurant, per guidelines that advise, “When it’s yellow, let it mellow.” I find this motivating; it’s evidence of a collective consciousness and effort.

In addition to the idea that population growth has collided with drought and climate change, there’s a feeling that water has been too cheap for too long and that the city hasn’t done enough to upgrade its infrastructure. Leaking water pipes are a major problem. Apparently this is true for many cities, but it is unacceptable in a world where resources are increasingly scarce and stretched thin.

There’s also a sense here that this crisis isn’t going to be a one-time event with a quick fix. Even with upgrades to the water system, the larger question is: How do we rethink our relationship to water and plan for next 50, 100 and 200 years? On a global scale, we need to reimagine how we live and use our resources. We should be asking ourselves how might we redesign our homes and cities to make conservation efforts easier and optimize our natural resources for the long term on a large scale.

As we have learned here in this crisis, homes should be built with rain water tanks to supply washing machines and water pipes to pump used water from those machines into toilets. We also need clearer feedback on our own habits. Water meters should be brought inside the house so we see how our choices make a difference.

Cape Town is at the forefront of what’s likely to be a new way of life in our increasingly overextended world. Experiences like these challenge our perceptions of what we need and of what’s precious. You could think of it as practice for what’s to come.

It rained lightly here last week, and I stared at it with the same awe with which I watched the recent solar eclipse. It shouldn’t take a drought to cultivate respect for our natural resources and compel more sustainable lives. But that’s where we are in Cape Town.

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