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Cape Town’s water crisis

Here in Cape Town, we’re in the midst of the worst drought in recent history. This is not new information – we’ve been on water rations for many months, and there’s been a constant stream (excuse the pun) of suggestions on how to be water wise. But this weekend, things suddenly got serious.

That isn’t to say we haven’t been taking the drought seriously so far. We’ve dramatically reduced our water use – only taking 2 minute showers (which sounded desperate at first, but are actually totally fine), bathing both kids in an inch of bathwater and then using that water to flush toilets, only flushing (or bucketing) the toilet when necessary (if it’s yellow, let it mellow), cutting down our water for cleaning and washing dishes and cooking, etc etc etc. We have a constant awareness of how much water we’re using, and an allergy to waste in any form.


It appears that only 40% of Capetonians have been playing ball, so to speak. The latest water use limits were 87 litres per person per day, but with 60% of people in Cape Town using more than that, this weekend they announced that Day Zero has gone from probable to plausible.

Day Zero is when they switch the taps off.

Just let that sink in for a moment. No. water. in. the. taps. How do schools and businesses run? How do kids not get sick? How does anyone not get sick?

We spent most of the weekend discussing every element of this with our friends (we had a particularly sociable weekend) and the thing I keep returning to is the lack of behavioural psychology in the City of Cape Town’s approach to this devastating drought. For months now, their approach has been to ask nicely – “please use less water. No really, we mean it, please use less water.” This hasn’t worked, not even a little bit, not at all. There are apparently still people in the richer suburbs watering their lawns and filling up their swimming pools with municipal water. But instead of ramping things up a notch – instead of following through on their promise of R100,000 fines for people who don’t adhere to the water limitations – there’s been an increase in asking nicely.

As any mom of a young child knows, if you don’t follow through with a consequence, your child will continue behaving badly. How does the City of Cape Town not know this?! Honestly, I feel like all they would need is one outraged, entitled water waster going to the press to complain about a massive fine to scare people into submission. And I suppose that’s what the threat of Day Zero is doing… At the current rate of water usage, that day is set for April 21st 2018. You can read a couple of very good articles (in my opinion) about it – there’s one by a columnist/satirist, one by a senior economics researcher, one by a politician. These start to scratch at the surface of the problem.

But there are so many layers. The one thing we’re not doing that we should be, for example, is collecting shower water in buckets (putting an empty bucket in the shower for our 2 minute splash). Why? Because Ella knows how to open bathroom and shower doors, Arty leaves the bathroom door open all the time, Ella is fascinated with water, and there have been 3 drownings in grey water already. I am not willing to take the risk of my child drowning.

But it is starting to feel desperate. Dystopian – and I don’t use that word lightly. The city’s plan, apparently, is to set up 200 water points where you can get 25 litres of water a day for each person in your family. That’s 100 litres of water a day for us. That will weigh 100kg, so we’ll need to drive there to pick it up (along with every other person in Cape Town with a car). Where will everyone park? How will they monitor it? When is this supposed to fit into everyone’s already busy lives?

My hope, underlying all of this, is that the imminent threat of Day Zero will scare people into finally doing what we were supposed to do a year ago – dramatically cut our water usage so we can make it until the rainy season arrives. My question, then, is why didn’t the city have this approach a year ago?

Everyone has an opinion on this. Nobody seems to have any answers.

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