Day Zero: Water Crisis in Western Cape, South Africa

Earlier this year, the threat of ‘day zero’, the day water stops running from taps, loomed above South Africans locally and internationally alike. Cape Town would be the first major metropolitan city to run out of municipal drinking water supplies as dams are at an all-time low due to a dry winter rainy season.

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Photo via Good Things Guy – Theewaterskloof dam

‘How are you managing with the water restrictions?’ asks every Capetonian I know and come across on this trip. ‘Just fine’, I say. Of course staying within the 50 Litre per person per day limit is easy for us on a two week visit, I mean, we have to right? I have lived in South Africa, Ireland and the UK. I have lived through minor water restrictions; as well as plentiful and low cost supplies. This water limit was for us a part of our visit, but how long would it take before the novelty wore off? Before we were really challenged to accomplish everyday tasks?

In the UK, the average person uses around 150 Litres per day, and I’d say I’m pretty average, so what did it take us to keep within the target?

  • 90 second showers (18 litres), as infrequently as possible, tap off in between for lathering
  • Dry shampoo to lengthen time in between washes
  • Baby wipes for freshening up
  • Showering over a bucket, and using this water for toilet flushing
  • One to two toilet flushes per day
  • Minimising cooking water (baked or grilled instead), reusing water for dishwashing
  • Only fill sink up minimally for dishes and wash as many as possible in one go
  • As few laundry cycles as possible (on average a washing machine uses 50-100 litres per cycle)
  • Many residents have rerouted laundry grey water to use for toilet flushing
  • Using hand sanitizer instead of hand washing in certain settings
  • Using bottled water as much as possible (drinking, boiling food, etc)

Regretfully, a lot of waste is created here in making do with the minimal water resources. Plastic bottles in unimaginable numbers, wipes for face and kitchen cleaning, hand sanitiser bottles, dry shampoo bottles and more. It really struck me as to how stuck we are in this resource management/waste cycle as a society, and how we urgently need to rethink how we move ahead from here.

It’s getting harder and harder to clean the volume of water needed every day, one reason being pollution of freshwater sources (oil spills and microplastics anyone?), as well as seawater desalination being prohibitively expensive to implement at present. I realised while I was out here that this water crisis is not just a South African, nor indeed and African issue. This is something that could happen to any of us anywhere, with increased levels of drought (even in Europe and the USA) being projected in the near future due to climate change.

Two weeks with limited water is doable as a tourist, but we really don’t realise what we have until it is gone! What I’ll take home with me to London is that I, and all of us worldwide, could really reduce our daily household water consumption to help relieve the pressure on our precious water resources.

Could you live on less water? Try following just some of my tips above and let me know your thoughts!