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First Person

When the rain didn’t come in Cape Town

In a town surrounded by water, we faced down a water shortage

By Neo Maditla

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — At first, the idea that Cape Town would soon run out of water felt like a big joke. The ocean was right there; I could smell it from my house. How could we be out of water?

We were. Following a years-long stretch of severe drought, the South African seaside city was fast approaching what government officials were calling “Day Zero,” when municipal taps would run dry. Around June last year, signs cropped up in restaurants, hotels, and offices pleading with us not to flush toilets unless it was completely necessary, and to opt for waterless hand sanitizers instead of washing our hands.

If the water did run out — which looked all but certain — residents would have to queue up at one of 200 water collection points to get our rations.

The irony was that water was a big reason I’d returned to Cape Town, after two years away in bustling Johannesburg. I looked forward to the city’s unique pleasures: the slower pace, the time around September when a drive along the coast meant the possibility of spotting a few whales, the ability to hop on a taxi and go read a book at the beach.

But when I moved back in May last year, water, which was integral to Cape Town’s beachy, relaxed feel, was making things tense. There were near fights in restaurant bathrooms over whether to flush. It was commonplace to walk into a bathroom stall and find the toilet yellowed and flushed with unstuffed toilet paper. Even in comfortable, leafy Cape Town suburbs, residents lined up daily at natural springs to collect water.

As an environmental journalist, I’d heard this could happen. For years, conservation activists, scientists, and NGOs had been warning about the precariousness of the region’s water situation. We had arrived here, on the brink of Day Zero, due to a combination of factors. Cape Town’s population has exploded over the past two decades — from 2.4 million people in 1995 to 4.3 million in 2018, a 79 percent increase. Over the same period, dam storage for the city had only increased by 15 percent, so water reserves were falling behind.

Then for three straight winters, the “wet season” in this part of the world, the rains didn’t come. By December last year, the biggest dam supplying water to Cape Town, the Theewaterskloof Dam, was filled with nothing but sand; a few years ago it was overflowing. And Cape Town is not the only South African city at risk of severe drought. Last year, Johannesburg also came under water restrictions when water levels for the Vaal Dam, its main water reserve, reached below 25 percent.

The uncertainty of basic necessities like water had long been a concern of Cape Town’s poor. The Day Zero crisis was a rare equalizer.

I had lived with water restrictions before. I grew up in a township in landlocked Pretoria toward the end of Apartheid. For me and other mostly black, low-income South Africans, it was not unusual to wake up to dry taps or no electricity without warning.  We got used to it; that was how things worked. When my family and I noticed a drop in the water pressure, we filled a few buckets with enough water to ensure that we could bathe and cook the next day.

In Cape Town, too, we made adjustments that quickly became habit. I took short showers, collected the water in a bucket and used it to flush the toilet when needed. Since the tap water was unsafe to drink, I started stocking up on bottled (it takes 3 litres of fresh water to produce 1 litre of bottled water; this irony wasn’t lost on me.).

The water shortage changed the way I related to other people. Scorn was reserved for those who dared to fill their swimming pools or bathtubs. My heart filled with dread when I had friends over who flushed with every trip to the bathroom. I stopped hosting too many people at my home in fear of using more water than necessary.

Cape Town’s unmatched natural beauty, its white sandy beaches, mountains, and vineyards, is offset by deep, ugly inequality. The uncertainty of basic necessities like water had long been a concern of the city’s poor, who are often ignored unless they take to the streets in protest.

The Day Zero crisis was a rare, if unwelcome, equalizer. It forced city leaders and politicians to reckon with a plan for running a city without a water supply. And they weren’t ready. No one could explain the details: What would happen to citizens who couldn’t make the trip to the water collection points? How would officials keep track of how much water people were collecting? How would the collection rules apply to people who were renting their homes or living in big apartment complexes? A Cape Town after Day Zero looked like absolute chaos.

Fortunately, it hasn’t come to that. Not yet. The predicted Day Zero date kept being pushed back, and thanks to a combination of conservation efforts from fellow residents and long overdue rain, it will not happen in 2018.

It’s now winter, the wet season. It’s raining as I type this. The water collection buckets, however, remain in place. People are encouraged to keep heeding the restrictions, and the city’s desalination plants have kicked into gear to add to water reserves. 

The short-term crisis has passed, but this is our new reality. I used to dread the coming of the winter rains each year; now I embrace them fully. I smile at the thought of a friend’s Cape Town vacation threatened by rain. And the sound of the buckets filling up outside brings me as much joy as a trip to the beach once did.

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Neo Maditla is a writer based in Cape Town, South Africa.

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