As a household, we’ve been saving water for months now. Cape Town is in the grip of a drought, and there is no end in sight.
So we have put in a rain water tank, and are flushing the toilet with water saved from showering. We’ve long had a wellpoint for the garden, and have hardy plants. We are catching vegetable-rinsing water. We are taking short showers and wearing our clothes for longer to cut down on the washing.
In short, we have been fully supportive of our municipality in its efforts to stave off the day when the dams run dry.
But now I have had enough.
The city has imposed a series of increasingly severe water restrictions, and “Level 4b” was implemented on July 1, in terms of which all residents should “immediately use less than 87 litres of water per person per day in total irrespective of whether you are at home, work or elsewhere.”
This is ridiculous.
First: the city is talking to South Africans, who don’t obey laws of any sort. If they think a red traffic light is an invitation to speed up, why would they start counting litres of water as they go about their daily business? Many people were not observing water restrictions when they were far less severe, and they aren’t going to start now – especially if the requirement is so silly.
Second: even if people were inclined to obey, how would they go about it? Does this mean that everywhere you go you are obliged to ask how much water is used in flushing toilets, for instance? And diligently add it to a column in a little notebook in which you record every millilitre you consume?
Third: how could this possibly be enforced? It is already difficult to find out officially how much water per person is used in any one household. For example, in our house there are three people quite capable of using less than 100 litres a day each (I know because I have been tracking our consumption via our rates bills), but we have a granny flat let out to tenants over whom we have no control. Is their water usage going to be held against us? How would you account for a situation like this if you decided to impose a fine?
Fourth: it’s argued that the 87 litres a day is a guideline, a consciousness-raising exercise, a way of making it clear how dire the situation is going to get. But there’s a phenomenon described by psychologists in which human beings have little understanding or empathy for their future selves. Trying to make people believe in something that may or may not happen in six months’ time is a fools’ errand.
Lastly and most importantly: the people who can cut their water use have done so and there is probably little more they can do in order to conform to this latest rule – which is why it feels so insulting to me. I am doing what I can and that has to be enough.
Given that we’ve probably hit the end of the road in getting more water savings out of the concerned citizenry, what next? We need to broaden that circle to include the unconcerned citizenry, and I would argue that that can most effectively be done by using the carrot rather than the stick. An excellent article from Wits provides a summary of effective ways to do this – and here are some ideas of my own:
• Run competitions: the best waterwise garden, the best invention for recycling pool backwash water (this is much discussed in the excellent Facebook group Water Shedding Western Cape), the household that cut its water the most over three months (this last one is tricky, since you’d need to know the amount of people in a household so as to compare apples with apples, but perhaps a way could be found: people submitting voluntary water audits, perhaps, which can then be checked if they make a shortlist?). Prizes could be sponsored by the private sector, or people could be rewarded by being exempted from paying their water bills for several months.
• Be more creative about raising awareness. One idea is to have the trucks that deliver Coke or beer take pamphlets in all official languages (and Arabic and French for good measure) to all the shops, kiosks, hawkers, bars and shebeens they go to (and publicise the competitions in this way too).
• Have some fun. Why not a lavish function at the end of the summer where the city’s water savers (as determined in the competition) are recognised and feted? Again the costs of the function could be funded through donations.
It’s time to use our imaginations rather than our inner nannies. Let’s get Capetonians out of the naughty corner and into a city-wide partnership aimed at saving one of our most precious resources.