Thursday, February 1, 2018

Water, water, ev'rywhere

One of the earliest popular songs I can remember is Tommy Steele’s Water, water, everywhere,” released in 1957.  I did not know at the time that it was taken from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.

The song starts:

So well, it’s water, water, ev’rywhere,”
And not a drop to drink.

You can listen to it here.

The reason this song popped into my mind is that today Cape Town goes to Level 6B water restrictions, despite being surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean.  The drought in the area is the worst in over one hundred years, and the dams are nearly depleted.  And since this is a winter-rainfall area, no meaningful rain is expected until June or July at the earliest.  And, of course, we may have a fourth winter with no rain.

Here are some pictures of the largest of the dams: Theewaterskloof Dam.

Day Zero – the day when the city runs out of water – is now April 16.

Of course, there is a massive case of finger pointing as to who is to blame for lack of preparations.  In reality, the municipal government, the provincial government, and the national government are all to blame.  The local and provincial governments blame the national government because it is in charge of water resources.  They say the national government is playing politics with the only province that is run by the opposition Democratic Alliance party.  It is from the national government that the city of Cape Town buys its water.  The national government says the other two entities are to blame for lack of planning.

Meanwhile the city is running out of water.

So, what do Level 6B water restrictions entail?

First, each person is now limited to using 50 litres of tap water every day.  That is approximately 13 gallons.  Here is a graphic showing normal usage.

Mette and I believe we are well under this target already.  We shower in less than a minute with water-on to wet, water-off to soap, and water-on to rinse.  In addition, we stand in a large, blue bucket to collect the water, which we then use to flush the toilet.  We think we use about 8 or 9 litres per shower.  We also only shower when the neighbour’s dog won’t walk through the door due to our body odour.  Not quite!  But certainly not every day unless we play golf or tennis or the outside temperature is in the mid-thirties.

Everywhere you go, you see Cape Town’s toilet mantra:

If it’s yellow, let it mellow.
If it’s brown flush it down.”

We reckon we normally flush three, and at most four, times a day at present, which means our shower water is insufficient.  We have to use some tap water.  Heaven forbid one or both of us should get the runs.  We’d have to fly and stay with Michael in Johannesburg.

We also save on laundry and dish-washing as we only do that every other day or so.  We don’t have a dog, so that saves a litre!  Daily hygiene takes about two litres instead of three (due to flow-restricting filters on all the taps), and Mette drinks bottled water brought in from elsewhere in the country.  Another two litres saved.  And I've been forced to drink wine and beer.

Few sporting facilities allow any showering – because of smart-asses who think they are saving water by showering elsewhere.  Of course, what they are really doing is trying to save money, as the price of water has gone up from R30 ($2.50) per 6000 litres to R146 ($12).  Over-use is charged at punitive rates.

Level 6B restrictions require agricultural enterprises to use 60% less water than used in 2015.  There is no filling of swimming pools, washing of cars, or watering of plants with a hose.  Any water used for plants comes out of the 50-litre allocation.

When Day Zero arrives, all tap water will be shut off, and 200 collection points will be set up around the city for people to get up to a maximum of 25 litres per day per person.  Needless to say, there are enormous logistical issues with this, as well as for people without transportation or confined to their homes.  I expect tempers to be frayed.

Supermarkets are stocked to the roof with bottled water, and when stocks run out, people queue for hours awaiting shelves to be restocked.  Personally, I think this is a bit extreme since we are still ten weeks away from Day Zero.  Today, I saw a man in a big Jeep go into our local supermarket and buy a trolley-full of water.  I watched as he opened the back of his vehicle to load his water.  The inside was nearly full already.  He had obviously been going from one shop to another to stock up.

So, what is being done?  The city is trying to commission a number of desalination plants.  The problem is that they will be small ones that may produce a million litres a day – not much for a city of 4 million people.  Bigger ones will come on line at some stage.  Water aquifers are also going to be tapped, and running streams that currently empty into the sea will be diverted and used.

It is interesting, since Cape Town was Dutch for so many years, originally there were canals in town, just like Amsterdam.  They were eventually filled in or walled off, but some still have water flowing.  There are also tunnels that are now untapped.  It is estimated that 20 million litres of water flow into the sea everyday through these canals and tunnels.  Apparently, one goes right underneath the Houses of Parliament.

One of the tunnels under the city

Last week, the huge ocean liner Queen Mary 2 arrived in Cape Town, which made me wonder whether the city was going to have to top up its water tanks.  That would be a lot of water since there were probably around 4000 people on board.  It turns out that the ship has its own desalination plants - three in fact - that can produce nearly two million litres a day.  I suggested that the city should hijack the ship and appropriate the plants, but Cunard, the owner, didn't like the idea.

For a moment the other day, I thought the city was going to drill for water in Table Bay, right in front of our apartment.  Two drilling rigs showed up within hours of each other.  They've moved off now, so they are probably here for a service in Cape Town harbor.

If all of this wasn’t bad enough, three other things make it worse.  First, the drought is not restricted to Cape Town.  Large swaths of the country are in similar drought situations.  Second, as always, there are people who don’t pull together – they continue using water and are willing to pay for it.  And third, as you would expect, there are groups of self-appointed vigilantes shaming or reporting others for violating the restrictions.

Watch this space.  It could get nasty.

Some good has come from the crisis.  Most people now realize that they can get by on far less water than they've become used to.  I think that this new behavior will continue when water becomes more available.  

And there are no mosquitos this summer.

There are also unwelcome consequences of the water situation, namely tourism is down, as are property prices.

As far as I know, no city has ever run out of water.  It is a sobering experience to realize how dependent we are on nature to provide some of our essentials.  It is even more sobering to realize that we may not get rain this year, or the next, or the next.  Gasp.


  1. Stan, I am here to bear witness to the fact that you were abiding by these rules and urging them on (willing) guests a year ago. Are there cisterns under the buildings to collect the rain water when it falls? Tuscany has rainless summers, and most houses in the countryside have such installations. How fast can they get desalination up and running? And BTW, is there a national election in the offing? South Africa needs one almost as much as the USA does. 🇿🇦 🇺🇸

    1. Annamaria - so many questions! More and more homes now have rainwater storage tanks. In Knysna, I had storage for 7500 litres. Going to put 2000 litres here in Cape Town, if I can find the tanks. There's a 4 week back order. Multi-million desalination plant will be operating in four weeks - just a drop in the bucket actually. National elections in 2019 - but it looks as though Zuma will be out before that. Whew.

    2. You’re glad I found the post so stimulating, right!

  2. Oh dear. But as you say the lesson to be learned is not to take mother nature for granted.
    As you would expect, we have plenty water. I think we have about a hundred years worth even if it never rained again ( that's a geological thing about water tables and low cloud). There were plans afoot to sell our water to the south of England by piping it down the middle of the country. Not sure if that was totally serious but we refused anyway, just to be contrary!

    1. I you’re hanging onto your water just for peat’s sake.

  3. The things we take for granted. In Nigeria most households, the ones better off, have their own boreholes. Of course, there has to be water to bore to in the first place. I hope day zero doesn’t come; or if it does, that it dosen't unleash its own little armageddon on beautiful Cape Towm :-(

  4. There is no way to make light of this horrible situation. That said, I think I must bear some blame by putting off Barbara and my visit to Cape Town. I say that because it seems everywhere we go it rains. Or, as shall be the case when I travel to Minneapolis on Saturday, snow. :(