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After living through the Day Zero drought in Cape Town, Selaelo Mannya discovers that her water awareness will stand her in good stead in times of climate uncertainty as Johannesburg enters a period of water stress in the summer of 2019. With droughts, extreme storms and floods increasing in frequency and intensity, she’s learning that water’s behaviour has changed and humans need to change their behaviour too.
When I first arrived in Cape Town in 2013, I found myself on the phone frantically asking a friend for directions to her place, when she asked what seemed like a simple question – “Is Table Mountain on your left or your right?” This unique-to-Cape Town navigation system stuck with me during the five years I spent in the city. It made me think that Capetonians have a solutions-based mentality for simplifying their lives. This approach would prove to be invaluable during my stay there.
In January 2018, I woke up to news reports that the city was three months away from running out of water. I was stunned. Labelled "Day Zero" – the hypothetical day when the taps would run dry – this prospect was a whole new reality brought on by three consecutive years of below-average rainfall. The countdown was 90 days; the most crucial countdown of my life.
No one solution was going to cut it. The City of Cape Town clamped down on heavy users, disclosing the street addresses of culprits in local papers, and banned the use of municipal water for swimming pools, lawns and other non-essential uses. Apartment buildings, malls, restaurants and office parks alike were decked out with so many water notices you’d swear it was election time. Even the farmers agreed to divert water stored in dams for agricultural purposes to the city.
Soon we were down to only 50 litres per person per day. And while the government couldn't realistically punish the denialists among us, I guess their own conscious would be the punitive measure for ignoring the rules
Being water wise wasn’t entirely new to me. I grew up in Ga- Ramokgopa village about 45km to the east of Polokwane in Limpopo where there was no proper water infrastructure. About 200 households relied on communal taps positioned at street corners but these shared taps might just as well have been street art as, more often than not, they ran dry. So the river was an alternative source of water for us.
Come to think of it, there was an unspoken system for collecting water – similar to Cape Town’s navigation system that I was to encounter years later. Still waters were strictly for laundry, household upkeep, animals and construction while drinking water should be collected from flowing water. I’m not sure if there was an imbizo where this was communicated but, those who came to the river knew which route to take for whatever purpose they needed to collect the water.
Back in Cape Town, we all had to adopt a high level of active citizenship. It was up to residents to implement water-saving habits in our homes. As a once-segregated people, we found comfort in sharing water-saving ideas and tips across race and class. Gardens turned to dust and the ghastly wind didn’t have much hair to blow (less hair, less to wash).
Even though we were working together, it was our individual efforts that reminded us of the gravity of the situation: The bucket when taking a timed shower to collect grey water which would be used to flush the toilet; mastering the art of one pan/pot meals and alternative cleaning methods for the upkeep of households. Living on 50 litres of water a day was not a life-altering adjustment for me but an unplanned test for anyone who already considered themselves a water hero.
When I relocated to Joburg, I packed my water saving habits with me. I didn’t want to be caught off-guard again. My friends thought I was going through drought withdrawal and that soon I’d be enjoying longer showers, swimming, full baths to soak in and weekly laundered clothes.
But, sure enough, as I write this the City of Gold is entering a period of water stress. I have lived through one drought, so I ask with conviction why have we not learnt more from the drought in Cape Town?
Driving around, I see municipal pipe leaks, drainage systems clogged up with trash and barely any rainwater tanks. I see people watering gardens and washing cars, which often makes me wonder if urging citizens to use water sparingly is enough to avoid catastrophic consequences. I have also become something of an annoying water warrior. I’ll ask if apartment blocks have grey-water systems in place and if restaurants/office parks have ever considered having “permission cubicles” to let the yellow mellow.
Climate change is a reality and with the changing weather patterns we are already witnessing it’s becoming ever more evident what this future might be. Climate scientists tell us that more frequent and extreme droughts are on the cards. Heat waves and windy weather have resulted in increased water usage and water restrictions are inevitable. Can government and citizens work collectively to avoid the next Day Zero?
Sly’s top 10 water saving tips
Check taps and pipes for leaks.
Wait until you have more than a handful of dirty dishes before running the sink.
Use the washing machine only for full loads.
Fill a jug or bottle with drinking water and keep it in the fridge rather than opening a tap and waiting for cooler water to start coming out every time you want a drink of water.
Take a short shower instead of a bath.
While you wait for water to warm up, collect the running water and use it to flush the toilet.
Place a bucket in the shower to collect grey water.
Keep leftover water from cooked or steamed vegetables to water plants.
Turn off the water while brushing your teeth.
Place plants in the shower to water them as you shower.
Share your stories. Tell us how climate change is affecting you.