When the taps run dry: Things we learned in Day Zero

We don’t really think about the water coming out of our taps until it seems that there might not be enough of it to go round.

I’m thinking about water right now because Johannesburg and Pretoria in Gauteng are in the grip of a water crisis – restrictions have been implemented, people are cross and the municipality is telling everyone to cut back. In some places, there is no water at all.

It seems this particular crisis is largely human-made. Anja du Plessis, Associate Professor and Research Specialist in Integrated Water Resource Management, University of South Africa, says that the province serves as a perfect example of how an area can experience water shortages and intermittent supply even though dams are full. “The biggest problem lies with decaying infrastructure. This includes water storage, water supply and treatment. In addition water resources are poorly managed. And there’s been poor planning, a lack of financing to maintain ageing infrastructure and to keep up with rapid urbanisation,” she says.

Back to 2018

In Cape Town, we’ve been there and done that – but in a different way.

Famously, our city got close to running out of water in 2018. As Wikipedia explains:

The Cape Town water crisis in South Africa was a period of severe water shortage in the Western Cape region, most notably affecting the City of Cape Town. While dam water levels had been declining since 2015, the Cape Town water crisis peaked during mid-2017 to mid-2018 when water levels hovered between 15 and 30 percent of total dam capacity.

That meant the phrase Day Zero was on everyone’s minds, all the time. Day Zero referred to the day when the water level of city’s major dams fell below 13.5 percent. When that day came, the council said water supplies would be cut off and residents would have to queue for water rations.

But that day never came. June 2018 saved us. Historical rainfall figures for Cape Town are surprisingly hard to find, but it rained, and it rained. More than it usually does in June. We were miraculously off the hook.

Four years later we remain off the hook – or so say all the Capetonians who still monitor the levels of water in our dams. Because here’s the thing – when you live through an event like Day Zero, some things change forever.

Although the reasons for Cape Town and Gauteng’s water issues might be different, I think there are still some lessons to be taken from the Day Zero experience. As Prof Du Plessis notes, South Africa is a water scarce country, and we should all be husbanding this precious resource as best we can.

Here are some of the things we learned in Day Zero

In the months of 2018 when the threat of having no water was hanging over us, a huge and very busy Facebook group called Watershedding Western Cape was many people’s go-to resource. In addition to the practical help that was often found there, some trends emerged.

First there were the blame games.

People wanted what was happening to be someone’s fault – first culprit was always the municipality. There were many things they should have done to prevent this from happening. I got irritated with them too – but in retrospect (and having project-managed a book about climate change ), I think they did the best they could in the circumstances.

Or people wanted to blame other people for using too much water. For people in the leafy, middle-class suburbs, it was obviously taxi drivers washing their vehicles with hoses who were using all the water (yes, this was really a thing), or “people in the townships who leave taps running” (yes, again, really a thing). For people in poorer neighbourhoods, it was obviously rich people with swimming pools and fancy gardens who were using all the water. They were right.

Secondly, there were the waves of negative emotions:

Frustration – The council hasn’t reacted fast enough to my report of a water leak!!!!

Rage – How dare that man on the corner still be watering his pavement?!!!!

Fear – I am 80-years-old – how will I be able to carry a 25-litre container of water when they start rationing????

Thirdly, there were the social pressures:

We have a wellpoint water system (it taps into an underground water source) which we use to water our garden (and which we had installed many years before the water crisis). It does not dip into the precious pool of communal, potable water at all. Nevertheless, we cut back in a big way in the summer of 2017/2018 – we ran it only in the early morning, twice a week and only on the vegetable garden. And felt guilty and afraid of what people would think every time we did it.

And we were ourselves those judgmental people. I clearly remember standing in a supermarket, watching with rage as people with lots of money stood in a very long line to buy trolleys full of bottled water. I even hissed at one woman: “Water hoarder!”

Fourth, there was a lot of “what aboutism”.

For every positive hint on the Facebook group, there were five people who would say “But what about X? They can’t do that,” or “That won’t work at all. You haven’t thought of (insert favourite hobby horse here).”

And yet, people pulled together

As noted, there was whining and moaning and blaming. But everyone I know just got down to the business of saving water in every way that they could. It is all those people who reduced the city’s water consumption so that we kept enough in the dams to make it through to that rainy June.

Let’s look at some sample months in our house (figures taken from my water consumption spreadsheet). These figures take a month at the height of summer, from 2015 onwards. At any given time we had four to five people on the premises, and a shifting population of two to three pets:

22 Jan 2015 to Feb 23: 19kl an average of 576 litres a day

Jan 21 2016 to Feb 17: 14kl, which amounts to 500 litres a day for the household

Jan 21 2017 to Feb 20: 20kl or 645 litres a day

Jan 27 2018 to Feb 22: 8kl or 296 litres a day

The January 2018 figures are for five people (plus one dog and two cats) – that’s just over 59 litres per person per day. The following month we used 4kl, which is 160 litres per person per day.

(For interest, our water consumption this past January to February was 10kl, or 345 litres per day, which is 69 litres a day. The international benchmark is 173 litres per person per day. Many of our water saving habits stuck, and will be around for the rest of our lives.)

These are the things we did in our house

* We took very short showers (you run water to wet your body; switch the water off and soap yourself; turn the water on again to rinse). Bathing was banned.

* We showered in a large black bucket, and then used that water to flush the toilet.

* We adopted the “If it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down” mantra for flushing the toilet.

* We took out an elderly, water-guzzling toilet in our upstairs bathroom and installed a much newer one with a double-flush mechanism.

* We put a plastic container in the kitchen sink to catch the water we used to rinse vegetables. We also had a container in the bathroom where we captured all the water we used while waiting for hot water. All of that water was used to water the plants in the garden that were no longer being irrigated (see previous point about shame).

* We hauled out the manuals for our water-using appliances and found out which cycles used the least water. We established that the most minimalist dishwater cycle used 12 (or it might have been 9) litres to wash dishes, which we worked out was less than if we washed them by hand. But we also had a rule that everyone got one coffee mug at the start of the day and had to reuse it rather than filling the dishwasher with dirty, one-use crockery. And we got down to doing one or two loads of washing a week, rather than three or four.

* We stopped topping up the swimming pool – the water level got really low that year.

* Over time, as we could afford it, we put in two rain water tanks to harvest rain from the roof, and one to capture backwash water from the pool, which could then be put back into the pool. (We now use those two rainwater tanks to keep the pool topped up. Municipal water does not provide us with pool water.

What we learned

Three things stand out:

One: When there is a shortage or water, the instinctive thing is to worry about whether there will be enough to drink. But that’s a problem on the individual level, which can be solved by buying bottled water (if you have the means) or by rationing water. The longer-term, more terrifying issue is how toilets will be flushed and what will happen to a city’s sanitation system if there is no water going into it. That’s a big and dangerous public health issue.

It is because that was imprinted on our brains that we still take showers in that large black bucket and flush with grey water. The single best water-resilience investment a household can make is finding a way to flush toilets without relying on potable, municipal water. (Be aware that there might be municipal regulations regarding the introduction of grey water into the general sanitation system.)

Two: Most people are wonderful. The deep willingness of people in that Facebook group, and in neighbourhoods, and in workplaces, to help each other was striking and deeply moving. When anyone said on the Facebook group that they feared they were not going to be able to collect rationed water, there were always people – complete strangers – who said: “Where do you live? I will help you.”

Three: There will be unintended consequences. We hated running the washing machine, and the ensuing waste of run-off water. So my husband rigged up a hosepipe into the garden, and I bought some organic washing machine liquid. We pumped the water from the washing machine to the nearest spot we could reach, which happened to be under our useless lime tree. It had been in the garden for years and no amount of feeding or threatening or cajoling had ever persuaded it to make a single lime. In the spring of 2018, having decided it liked all that washing machine water, it burst into blossom and has been churning out limes faster than we can use them ever since.

I would prefer never to live through a Day Zero year again, and my thoughts are with the people of Gauteng. But in our climate-stricken world, I am glad to have cut back on my water footprint for good. And I do love that lime tree now.

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