Cape Town diary: A toilet is our best gift in years

Like many people in Cape Town, I teared up earlier this week as I watched a video of the gates of a privately owned d...

Posted: Feb. 12, 2018 8:01 PM
Updated: Feb. 12, 2018 8:01 PM

Like many people in Cape Town, I teared up earlier this week as I watched a video of the gates of a privately owned dam being opened to release 10 billion liters of water, a lifesaving gift for our drought stricken city.

Unless you're living through Cape Town's water crisis, it's hard to explain the magnitude of this donation from a rural farming community, which will add 20 days of water to our rapidly dwindling supplies. The generous gift is from the fruit farming community of the picturesque Elgin/Grabouw Valley, which lies behind the rugged Hottentots Hollands Mountains that separate Cape Town from its hinterland.

Although just 45 miles from Cape Town, the valley lies in a different catchment area and has enjoyed good rainfall. Their dams, many of them privately owned by the local farming community, are full -- unlike those supplying Cape Town. And these farmers are taking a big gamble, as they will face hardship if their next rainy season doesn't top up their dams.

Their donation, along with other measures now in place, has pushed back Day Zero, when the water runs out and the taps are turned off, from April 16 to May 11. It also takes us closer to the start of the rainy season -- if the rains finally return to normal patterns after three abnormally dry years.

But Capetonians also are making a concerted effort to be a part of the solution. More and more people are cutting back water usage to meet the strict daily allowance of 13.2 gallons (50 liters) per person. And those who ignore the restrictions are being whipped into shape with steep fines and punitive levies for those who exceed their limit.

Yet despite the now frenzied attempts by the authorities to stave off Day Zero I, like many others, no longer trust what the politicians are telling us about if and when the taps will run dry. Instead, I continue to plan for a worst-case scenario, while hoping it never comes to that.

In our household, the prospect of having to queue to collect a daily quota of just over 6.5 gallons (25 liters) a person -- a reality if Day Zero comes -- has made us more aware of how we use our precious water supply, and ways we can use even less.

For context, we are among the more fortunate. With our two adult daughters no longer living at home, there's just my wife, me and our two dogs, so saving water is far easier than for bigger households.

We live in a beautiful, almost 90-year-old house in Cape Town's southern suburbs that still has many of its original features. But a house built for another era of far less water-stressed times comes with its own problems, and we will have to invest to adapt it to Day Zero realities.

For now, we are making simple and relatively cheap adjustments. Last week, for example, my brother-in-law popped in to drop off a gift he'd bought for us -- a small camping toilet. He bought it at an outdoors equipment shop where, he was told, they were flying off the shelves as fast as new stock arrives. This toilet has a small water tank for flushing and uses a fraction of the water a normal toilet does. The waste is collected in a tank in the base and needs emptying every 20 uses.

A few months ago, a gift of a toilet would have been unimaginable -- possibly even offensive; today, I consider it one of the best presents we've received in years. In the meantime, we are going to continue using the normal toilet, using grey water to flush it. But our Plan B is sitting in its box ready to be hauled out should our water be cut.

We've also placed small plastic basins inside the bathroom and kitchen to use for washing ourselves and our dirty dishes. This ensures that nothing runs down the drain and allows us to use the gray water, leftover from our washing, for other items -- such as our garden, which once verdant, is increasingly brown.

We have even mastered just how much water we need to address our basic hygienic needs.

For example, half a small mug of water is more than ample for brushing teeth. It's a far cry from the days when we just left the tap running while we brushed.

Eventually, we plan to buy and install storage tanks connected to the gutters, which can harvest whatever little rainwater there is. But this is taking time because stocks are low and sell out quickly when new supplies hit shops. I'm also planning to install an automated grey water harvesting system, as lugging buckets of wastewater to flush toilets and water the garden is taking its toll on our backs.

So, what keeps us going? Knowing that we are all in this together helps. As often happens in communities facing hardship, the generosity of the human spirit comes to the forefront. The farmers' donation is just one part of an outpouring of goodwill from people all over South Africa: A Johannesburg charity collected 60 tons of water for animal shelters in Cape Town, with a small fleet of trucks driving across the country to deliver it. Coca-Cola has promised to donate millions of liters of prepared water, while a Cape Town brewery with access to a natural spring says it will donate a million cases of water a week if Day Zero becomes a reality.

I've also heard how some hairdressers are charging extra for the water used to wash customers' hair, unless they bring their own water. And some women are even cutting their hair shorter to save on washes.

People invited to a barbecue now often take their own water along with meat and salads, so they don't use any of their hosts' precious supplies

For many of us, saving water has become the new normal. I will never take access to water for granted again.

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