by Struggling Utilitarian
Living in Cape Town South Africa, after we have gained experience with rolling blackouts, our city (and surrounds) ran out of water … a first-world major metropolis ran out of water.
This is my summation of what happened and how we personally dealt with it.
Two things to note:
- Cape Town falls in a winter rainfall area. (Similar to Northern California)
- In our country, clean water is a constitutional right. Building dams, desalination plants, and maintaining the dams is the responsibility of the national government. Local governments are responsible for distributing the water. They are not allowed to build dams or desalination plants. Cape Town was forced to do both, at taxpayers’ cost.
This is to give you some background on how things are (or are supposed to be) here. You will see that how things are supposed to be are not how things are.
How did Cape Town almost run completely out of water?
There were basically four main reasons, as Cape Town knew of this pending problem:
- An unforeseen severe drought triggered it all.
- Unbeknownst to most, because of “state capture” (a kind phrase for corruption), the National Department of Water and Sanitation had no funds left to build dams. The South African public was blissfully unaware of this.
- The local budgets, the part that the city must budget in order to distribute the water, was used to build a dam, effect some repairs to local national water infrastructures, and because year after year there were good rains, the rest was used for other pressing political promises, like schools, toilets (yes toilets), and housing etc.
- There was a huge influx of people into Cape Town from other provinces, seeking jobs, as the Western Cape is one of the best-run provinces in SA.
A “perfect storm” some would call it, triggered by a drought.
Here’s some more information if you wish to read further.
#DayZero – How close we came
The city of Cape Town, with plus or minus 4 million people, with businesses and the agricultural sector on top of that, was using about 1.2 billion litres of water per day. If the rains stayed, that would be no apparent problem, but it turns out that even with regular rains, the system was being put under severe strain already, and maintenance was behind too.
To make ends meet with the rains gone, first the agricultural sector’s water allocation was reduced, then canceled. Then large water users like businesses and hotels were forced to reduce. Then home users allowed only 50 liters (about 13 gallons) per person per day (pppd) i.e. level 6b water restrictions. Everyone was affected.
What are Level 6b restrictions? This included, not limited to, no watering of gardens, no topping up of pools, no washing of cars nor pavings i.e. no hosepipe usage at all, no filling of pools nor fish ponds or any water feature, and people were limited to only 13 gallons per day. With an average of four people per property that equates to a max usage of 6000 litres per month. (1585 gallons)
Note from Daisy: For comparison’s sake, the average American uses 101.5 gallons of water per day. For a family of four, that’s 406 gallons per day and 12,180 gallons per month.
Coupled with the above, a forced massive hike in the water price with huge fines if you don’t stay within the limit with the last resort, the physical limitation of the water supply to your home. Larger families could ask for an increased usage.
To further “help” people manage their water usage a website was created that showed each house in the city’s water consumption. Green dot and you are good, so one could also see ones neighbour’s usages. People got really angry and took to social media if they saw water wasters.
Some people, instead of shaming others, worked together to create solutions. A huge highlight was when a group of farmers who built their own private dam in Grabouw, then donated all their water for the city’s use. It helped a lot at a most critical point. Respect.
What actions were taken?
Politicians acting on the back foot to impress with expenditure, the blame game playing out in the press between local and national governments, a few small emergency desalination plants were built in haste (which challenged the constitution) with a number of large aquifers being tapped with a vengeance. The combined additional water, but a drop in the bucket, nowhere close to the minimum requirement of 450 million litres per day.
On top of this, the aquifers being pumped is a potential subsidence problem in due course if not correctly policed, not managed, policed, as more and more home and businesses also tapped into the same aquifers via private boreholes. Note: even with a borehole you were not allowed to water your garden or wash your car.
The prices of rainwater tanks shot up overnight, nearly doubling in price with waiting periods of weeks, sometimes months. Stores ran out of 25-liter containers. Everyone was investing heavily in containers for home storage and rainwater harvesting.
The end result
The #DayZero campaign was a huge success, it worked and people everywhere became aware of it, was even reported on internationally.
From starting at 1.2 billion litres of usage per day with a target set of 450 million litres per day, in the end, we hovered around +/-510 million litres per day. Well done, Cape Town!!!
However, the countdown to #DayZero still continued. If the rains stayed away the dams will run dry on day zero.
If Day Zero occurs, people will be forced to queue for their allotted 50 liters (13 gallons) pppd at select water points around the city. Some townships and all informal settlements being unaffected, as they already have to walk for water.
However, the campaign had to be stopped. Cape Town, to a large extent, relies on tourism and the #DayZero campaign was affecting the industry negatively. We now get a newsletter where we are given links to all the websites to see the water levels and water usage of the city.
What this fiasco highlighted was that the Cape Town crisis was nothing new in South Africa, no, Cape Town was just the first prominent South African city to reach the national and international news.
It came to light that there are other areas in South Africa where they have been struggling for years without water, Department of Water and Sanitation turning a blind eye, so no-one took notice nor cared. There was no money left. All because of the misappropriation of State Funds, part of the State Capture.
But this is not only a South African problem. It is a worldwide problem. Water systems can be over taxed, dams can dry up in a serious drought, with the continued lavish use of water by most major cities.
To build new dams or desalination plants in the world’s current financial state is unaffordable. Aging infrastructure (pipes, pumps and water reservoirs) coupled with increased population migration towards cities, all are seriously taxing the most basic human right, clean water.
Everything depended on the rains returning. The rains did return, the problem was averted but it must be noted that the consumption was still left at 50 liters pppd. That is why the dam water levels where rising.
On the 1st of Oct 2018 the restrictions where slightly lifted to 70 liters pppd. Still no using municipal water for gardening, washing cars etc.
The fact stands, if the city goes back to excessive usage, or the rains stay away again, we will run out of water again. Home water management is here to stay as the bulk of the problem, to get more water sources, have still not been properly addressed at the time of this musing.
My vote. We need desalination plants for the city, ground water and dams are to be used for agricultural activities only. Problem is, there are no billions, not even millions, to spend on building anything – yet.
The big question: How did we survive on 50 litres (13 gallons) per person per day?
It is not easy, but once you have adapted, it becomes the new normal. It becomes as easy as eating a good pie.
You can do all of this with cool gadgets or automated pumps. You can spend a lot. This is the way to do it cheaply and efficiently.
Sit down one day and measure your actual water usage … you will be shocked.
- You can skip a few days to a week of not showering, yes, the first week is tough, and then your body adapts. The natural bacteria returns, skin less oily, hair looks healthier.
- Use wet wipes where you can – don’t flush them down, throw them in the bin.
- Look into dry shampoo for your hair. It is basically baby powder in a pressured container.
- The biggest waste of good clean drinking water, are toilets. This is all about that.
- Most sewage systems are reliant on a certain flow of water, so be careful not to clog your drains.
The steps we took:
- Get rainwater harvesting in place but keep an eye out for over-capitalizing. Do it wisely.
- Use gravity, it is simpler, to get water from the tank to where it is needed.
- Estimate your daily needs, same as power failures and batteries, your needs are cheaper than wants, and the needs dictate how much water you need to store.
- Get a black tank, they are cheaper and lasts longer as sometimes colouring the plastic can affect the lifespan of the tank. Check with your supplier.
- If you want to have a tank with a nice colour, make sure the inside has a black lining to ensure no light enters the inside, to prevent any algae.
- And no openings as mosquitoes like nice hot still standing water.
- Setting it up:
- If you need a pump, it obviously gets more expensive.
- We use a 2.2kl portable pool as the first flush. You have to, as leaves and bird droppings, dust accumulates on the roof.
- The tank is elevated so we use a pool pump and via a cartridge filter, we pump the water from the pool to the water tank.
- From the tank, gravity takes care of distributing the water.
- Use a wash basin, brushing your teeth, washing hands / face.
- Don’t keep the tap open, ever.
- Catch all the water in a little holder.
- Keep water for flushing.
- Nice long hot bubble bath – forget it, no – “ain’t gonna happen cupcake”, move on.
- If a bath is an absolute necessity, keep the water, use it for flushing the toilet.
- The Shower Drill – a two-minute, army style shower
- Turn the shower on – catch all the cold water in a large step-in bucket.
- When the water temp starts getting acceptable, jump in and get wet. Close the tap.
- Soap up – washing your hair first, helps to soap the rest of you.
- Step into the bucket, open the tap, rinse quickly before the water gets too hot. Close tap.
- Repeat as many times as needed – nope, once is enough. 🙂
The water that you have caught in the bucket, the one you have been standing in, is used to flush the toilet.
- Washing machine
You can buy a new model front loader that uses <50l per wash at a premium price. Families tend to have top loaders and they use about +-120-160l of water per wash. Note: Top loaders, for large loads, are more economical.
- Always ensure it is a full load of washing.
- Only use rainwater.
- Manually stop the rinse cycle. Yes, not rinsing can work if you replace the type of soap you use.
- In +/- 40 degrees water, the enzymes work better. Maybe circle the water on the roof in black pipes before using it in the washing machine.
- Very important: Catch all the dirty washing water in a 220l drum. This becomes your main source of toilet water.
- To keep the smell under control, add a little bit of pool chlorine. Or use whatever works for you, but you need to manage this carefully as stale dirty water is dangerous.
- Use water sparingly but do not skimp as it is a health risk.
- Don’t catch this water, let it go, as the greasy dishwashing water is not cost effective to treat for safe use.
- Unless you wash like vegetables, catch all that water.
- Toilets, a very simple rule: If it is yellow let it mellow. If it is brown flush it down.
- Never use potable water for flushing.
- You can put the grey water from the bath / washing machine into the cistern, but it tends to clog the seals.
- Clean the seals regularly or use a bucket and pour directly into the bowl. Find the ideal angle to pour the water in for an optimal flush.
- Get to know a good Chiropractician. Carrying water around is going to put your back out.
And that is how one gets by on 50 litres per person per day.
This is now our new lifestyle. It is easy, works efficiently and we have a family of 6 people using less than 5000 liters (1320 gallons) of water per month.