Photo: Paul Michael Hughes/Shutterstock

What the Rest of the World Can Learn From Cape Town's Water Crisis

Cape Town Sustainability
by Zoe Baillargeon Feb 22, 2018

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard that the rains down in Africa aren’t so blessed these days: as of June 4th, Cape Town will be the first big city in the world to run out of water.

On Day Zero, as it’s being called, city officials plan to turn off the water supply to all but essential services like hospitals, and residents will need to collect a daily ration of 6.6 gallons from one of 200 collection points around the city. There may be relief a few months hence when the annual rainy season is expected, and desalination plants are being built and boreholes drilled faster than you can sing “Have You Ever Seen The Rain”. But that still doesn’t change the fact that for a first time, a city — home to millions of people — will be out of water. Turn on the tap, and nothing will come out.

Just saying that out loud is mind-boggling. “How can a city RUN OUT of water?” And because it’s such an unthinkable situation in an age where many of us are used to having exactly what we need right at our fingertips or a quick Prime drone away, we don’t want to imagine that the same waterless (raw water or otherwise) fate could happen in our cities and towns, and so we look to place blame to explain why this is happening. “Oh, well, the city officials must not have planned properly.” “Oh, people must be taking more than their fair share of water.”

Yes, maybe more could have been done to properly prepare Cape Town for the Big Dry, but ultimately it comes down to this: an unprecedented drought, which was almost certainly exacerbated by climate change (GASP!!!), is the cause for this situation. Water ran out. Yes, it happens.

We need to get used to that fact.

Our water supplies are not unlimited

We need to stop seeing water as an eternal resource, because it isn’t. Yes, it cycles around the world, but humans are pumping it out of the ground faster than water tables can refill. Climate change is altering weather patterns, increasing desertification, yadda yadda, I’m not going to keep spouting off facts because a) climate change is a thing, we shouldn’t need to justify it anymore, and any arguments against its existence don’t hold much water (*ba dum tsssss*) and b) unnecessary spouting is the exact problem I’m here to talk about.

I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a town in the high desert of the American Southwest. The landscape is characterized by dusty plains of cacti, yucca, and juniper bushes, high mountain pine forests (that go up in smoke during fire season if you even think the word “spark”), and the occasional oasis alongside rivers. We have our annual monsoons and even snowfall, but even then, the entire state has been battling drought for decades. We are literally high and dry. So water conservation is just a part of daily life.

We try to take short showers. We never leave the water running when we’re brushing our teeth or washing dishes. We use rain collection barrels. If we need to water lawns or gardens, we do it in the morning or evening, when there is less evaporation. Fountains won’t run if it’s a really dry year. They don’t let water down the Santa Fe river except when the reservoir is high. “Let it mellow” is our mantra.

I grew up constantly using these techniques and was always aware of how I used my water. I felt guilty if I left the hose running too long watering the garden, or if I didn’t realize the faucet was dripping. I’ve openly blanched when seeing people wantonly waste water.

Living in the desert, we have a close relationship with water, seeing it for what it is: a valuable and finite resource. I’m not trying to shame the citizens of Cape Town or any other water-strapped city; it’s not your fault. This is just the new normal in a world shaped by climate change. But it is on you — on ALL of us — to adjust and go with the times. There are vast parts of the world where people don’t have easy, assured access to water (which is a whole other injustice we don’t have time to get to, I’m close to my word limit), so we need to get off our “More Economically Developed Countries” asses and do better with our water privileges.

This can (and probably will) happen in other places

If it can happen to Cape Town, it could happen to any other city (oh hi, LA). This is reality, not some Hollywood B-level climate disaster movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal or some other actor needing projects in between Oscar bids. And when it happens, we all need to be prepared. And by prepared, I don’t mean panicking and stockpiling bottled water and joining a Mad Max vigilante group, scouring streets, illegally turning on water mains, or creating a Citadel. I mean that, if you start being smarter with your water usage, if your city is facing a water crisis, it won’t completely upend your day to day life and you can do your part to save water.

It won’t be a sacrifice for you to take a five-minute shower because you already take five-minute showers. Your lawn is looking a little brown? If you’re that desperate to keep up appearances, it’s called Astroturf. When water crises hit, it affects everyone, which is why everyone needs to do what’s best for the community, which is SAVE WATER. So implementing water saving techniques into your daily lives now can help, in a tiny way.

As we say in Santa Fe, when in drought, tighten the spout. So here’s some ways you can start saving water:

  • “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” (Yes, I know it’s gross. Get used to it.)
  • Turn off the faucet while brushing teeth, washing dishes, cleaning food, etc.
  • Clean dishes or food in a full sink of water, not under a running faucet.
  • Brush your teeth in the shower.
  • Check all faucets, pipes, etc. for leaks.
  • Install water-saving shower heads.
  • Shower in less time than it takes for Bohemian Rhapsody to play.
  • Fully load your dishwasher or washing machine before doing loads.
  • If you’re watering your lawn or garden, do so early in the morning or late in the evening.

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