In Cape Town, water shortages are daily life

CNN's David McKenzie looks at Cape Town's water crisis, and how residents are dealing with the shortage.

Posted: Apr 7, 2018 4:10 PM
Updated: Apr 7, 2018 4:15 PM

When I told friends that my wife and I were heading to Johannesburg -- which had just been hit by torrential rain and flooding -- for a family wedding over Easter, they joked about how lucky we were to be able to take deep baths and long showers.

Like many Capetonians, we've endured months of quick 90-second showers, bucket washes or baths that are only centimeters deep and grey water to flush the toilet or water our parched garden.

But taking my first shower in Johannesburg, I automatically ran the water long enough to wet myself and then turned off the tap while I soaped, followed by a quick rinse.

My wife admitted that rather than the deep, long soaking bath she'd dreamed of, she took a very shallow Cape Town-style dip. The only difference was that there were no buckets to scoop up the grey water, leaving us both feeling genuinely guilty about the wasted water that ran down the drain.

Clearly, we've both learned a life lesson about the importance of treating water as the precious, finite resource that it is. That lesson is part of what helped Cape Town fight back against the dreaded Day Zero -- the day when we'd turn on our taps and nothing would emerge.

The local authority first set Day Zero for April 12, and panic ensued. Fearful residents rushed to stock up on bottled water before the shelves were stripped bare (which happened rapidly each time they were refilled with more stock). Other everyday items like hand sanitizers, paper plates and toilet deodorants also regularly sold out.

Police were even called out to keep the peace when pandemonium broke out at some of the natural springs around Cape Town, as residents converged to collect free water. Tap water, then as now, is only used for cooking, bathing and washing clothes.

Faced with the prospect of running out of water -- and the imposition of punitive water tariffs -- people reduced their consumption. And as dam levels kept dropping, the authorities forced water management devices on water guzzling households that exceeded their quotas, at the homeowners' expense.

Many people laid out thousands on storage tanks to harvest rainwater, and on grey water systems and other water saving devices. Not flushing the toilet after every use is now normal in homes, offices and public bathrooms -- guided by an "if it's yellow, let it mellow" policy.

Also, in a world first, Cape Town established a dedicated police unit to crack down on water guzzlers, who were handed hefty fines.

As significant savings kicked in, boosted by slashing supplies to farmers, Day Zero kept being postponed, culminating in the announcement that it had been pushed out to an unspecified date in 2019.

And it's all thanks to a Herculean effort that halved Cape Town's water consumption in just three years -- something that took Melbourne, Australia, 12 years to do. Equally impressive is that Capetonians, on average, are using just under 33 gallons a day per person, compared to the 102 gallons used by California residents at the height of their drought in 2015.

It hasn't been easy. And it hasn't come without sacrifices and losses.

Economists have warned that the drought could negatively affect both Cape Town's tourism industry and the city's credit rating. Ironically, the loss of revenue from water sales and resultant sewage disposal has left the city's budget with a massive revenue shortfall, and the city council has tabled a proposed budget that will see water and sanitation tariffs rise by almost 27%.

Agriculture has been amongst the hardest hit sectors, with estimates that farmers have lost as much as a quarter of their vineyards and orchards. The loss has impacted seasonal farm workers -- with about 30,000 out of jobs during the harvest season.

Heartachingly, unemployed people in poor communities, who rely on backyard food gardens, are suffering as well. These food gardens, which are often communal, have become increasingly common in black townships. Besides helping feed families, they also create jobs and an income for the owners who sell some of the produce to their local communities.

Like thousands of others who have sustained "drought injuries," I have almost permanent pain in my right shoulder and upper back caused by lugging buckets full of grey or spring water. And I'm not the only one -- chiropractors and physiotherapists are doing a significant amount of business treating "drought-related" back and shoulders strains and pains.

But it's a small price to pay to avoid Day Zero -- and far from complaining, we wear our drought-related injuries as badges of honor.

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