Fish out of water, except the fish is Cape Town

“The government cautions that the Day Zero threat will surpass anything a major city has faced since World War II or the Sept. 11 attacks. Talks are underway with South Africa’s police because “normal policing will be entirely inadequate.” Residents, their nerves increasingly frayed, speak in whispers of impending chaos.

A family negotiates their way through caked mud around a dried up section of the Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town

I’ve been putting off writing about this to give me time to organize my thoughts and research about how this managed to happen and what’s largely to blame… but, considering that today we have advanced (or devolved) to level 6b water restrictions, it’s a good a time as any. This means that residents are required to use less than 50L of water a day (yesterday it was 87L). For us imperial system Americanos, consider the fact a toilet flush is 6 liters, a 2 minutes shower is 20 liters, and washing your face and hands in the morning is 3L. It can add up for people that aren’t paying attention. And despite the public service announcements, interactive graphics, persistent urgent warnings, and now international news coverage, many Cape Tonians are still not listening. It’s been revealed that under the 87 L restriction, 67% of residents were still overusing their daily quota.

The rest of them have it down pat. To flush the toilet is to commit the deepest sin. The bucket in the shower is a household staple. To emit a slight funk is a badge of honor. Some are literally diagnosed with “bucket back” due to their commitment of saving grey water.

But I will say despite statistics, I have been very proud of the way I have seen residents in my neighborhood and Langa come together to do what’s necessary. Many people believe that low income neighborhoods have bigger problems to worry about than the environment, but I have found the exact opposite to be true. Each Langa homestay has finished a SMART living training program that had them put signs in their bathrooms and make moves towards solar and energy cutting appliances. But go to Constantia, Hout Bay, Camps Bay, the 1% garden cities of Cape Town, and I don’t doubt you will find green manicured lawns and pools still full of water. And yet, last week, the DA leader Mmusi Maimaine sparked outrage by posting a picture handing out 25 L buckets to Constantia (think Bel Air) residents to encourage them to save water.


When you consider the context — a very economically and racially stratified post-apartheid social environment, and the guy is handing out buckets to white people at the black taxpayer expense — it’s not a super good look. Hundreds of pissed off South Africans put it to words better than I do:

Screen Shot 2018-02-02 at 12.18.02 AM

It is very important to see how the government will handle this problem. When Day Zero comes in April, residents are to queue in one of 200 water collection points throughout the city with armed guards making sure people don’t get more than 25L per day. As the Times put it, we’re truly going Mad Max. But the question I’m interested in seeing is the placement of these points. Townships are extremely dense with people, but don’t have the wealthy vote for the next election cycle, which could very well incenstivize the placement of these points. It’s politics that largely got the water crisis to be this exacerbated in the first place. With the ANC party holding the national government and the DA holding the regional government, budgets have been handed off from one election cycle to the other with each budget focused on getting short term votes. This means funds have long been dedicated to short term poverty alleviation to long term infrastructure projects. When Cape Town should have been listening to the dooming weather patters and shocking population increase, officals should have been allocating funds to desalination tanks and a better dam system much longer ago.

The city centre business are already exempt from the water cutoffs in order to keep business running. Informal settlements are also exempt. But what about those living in townships that are formal settlements? What about people in Muisenberg, who my Uber driver tells me wait for over an hour at collection points already? What about lil ol me in Observatory?

Time will tell. Commnuication from up top has been unreliable from the start. Every day was a changing percentage of how full the dams were, and statements about the current state of water is geared more towards political pats on the back than actually dessimating important information to citizens (I just read an article celebrating the fact that we pushed Day Zero back to April 16… when the Times reported it was to be April 22. Go figure.) But desalination plants from the Waterfront should be online by March, and until then, hospitals, clinics, informal settlements, and clinical points will still have access to water.

This is the first major city in the world to run out of water, but it is most definitely not the first city. Cape Town has many rural groups to turn to to gain valuable protips on how to last without water. If they take some proper notes, they could rise from this political embarrassment as a decent case study on how to survive when other countries inevitably run into the same problem. Maybe by that point we’ll have no need for our buckets and back braces.

The coming weeks will be interesting, to say the least. But to those wondering if we’re flopping like dried fish out here, we are okay. The water crisis is as bad as it sounds, but people will adapt and adjust to do what is necessary to make push through Day Zero, or, in a perfect world, make sure the day doesn’t have to come.

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