Watergeddon: An open letter to the Mayor of Cape Town

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Dear Patricia:

(Forgive the informality – we’ve been introduced several times.)

You’ve really, truly, deeply stuffed this one up, haven’t you? Yes, #WaterCrisis. I’m not blaming you for the fact that it hasn’t rained, btw; and it’s not your fault the middle and moneyed classes of Cape Town treat water as an infinitely endless resource which they are entitled to abuse. I’m talking about the way-way too little and late response of the City to the fact that we’re about to run out of water (something every successive city administration has known about since 2001). I’m won't mention the fact that as little as seven months ago, you were still sitting on your Queen Canute throne shouting “I will not allow a well-run city to run out of water!”

But at least in the last few months, the penny has dropped that no human agent on earth can fly up to the clouds and wring precipitation from them. So now you’re saying we’re almost certainly going to reach a day when the taps will be switched off. Well, yes; some of us have been trying to tell you this for a very long time now.

I read your statement of yesterday (18 Jan) with disbelief. As a means of communicating with a frightened citizenry – about a coming apocalypse, no less – it was one more in a long line of spectacular fails.

Alas, you are not to get us to save the tiny bit of water we have left by scolding. That’s just going to alienate those who’ve been doing their best, hauling water from springs, saving every drop of grey water, wearing dirty clothes and letting our yellow mellow. We are hot, tired, scared, smelly, and our backs hurt from lugging buckets.*

Now this, and frankly, these lines take the biscuit: “Despite our urging[…], 60% of Capetonians are callously using more than 87l per day. It is quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending us all headlong towards Day Zero[….] At this point we must assume that they will not change their behaviour[….] We can no longer ask people to save water. We must force them.”

“Callous”? Do you think the callous, by definition, care about being called names? Did you believe you could simply ASK these people to do the right thing, and they would? How did you think this was going to go down in a city with Cape Town’s particularly toxic history of disparities and injustices, and a particularly arrogant and entitled middle class?

You needed to launch an arsenal of sticks and carrots yonks ago. It was YOUR JOB to force the uncaring and oblivious to save water. Surely you understand that the kinds of people who guzzle water sans conscience respond to only one thing: being hit really, really hard in the goolies (err – I mean pocket)? That, and fear – particularly of having to smell their own ordure (of which, more later).

The rest of us – we are only human – respond to encouragement, clear and helpful information, and incentives. Including financial incentives. Remember when we got rebates and subsidies and tax credits for gas stoves and solar panels? Why has there been nothing similar for those installing rainwater-harvesting systems and composting toilets? Or even tanks and greywater-trapping devices?

I grant this would mean co-operation between local, provincial and national government, and you’re trying to roll this boulder up a hill at the same time that national government is trying to kick it down again, because they would rather hang Cape Town out to dry (LITERALLY) in the hopes of grubbing a few votes than uphold their sworn duties to their citizens.

Nevertheless, apart from a City poster here and there, and the water restrictions reported in the media, I’ve had to turn to civil society resources to find out HOW to keep cutting my water usage. But there are a thousand things I want my local government to tell me. For starters, which natural springs in Cape Town are producing potable water? Who tests this water, and how regularly? How are you going to manage these (parking, queues, amount of H2O permitted) in the coming months?

Now, apparently, a crew led by Tony Leon is going to be paid a fleet of wheelbarrows filled with leopards to manage the PR/info side of this trainwreck. Yet on the day Level 6B water restrictions were announced to us, we had to rely on an NGO unrelated to the city (thank you, WWF) to explain what Day Zero is actually likely to mean in our daily lives, and how to prepare for it.

Well, here’s a PR tip for free. If you had started telling people at least a year ago that come Day Zero, they WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO FLUSH THEIR SHIT, we might not now be in the shit. Why haven’t you hired planes to fly this message across the skies? Why still so dainty? We’re seeing pics of the water collection stations, but where are the pics of the mass communal portaloo stations that YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE TO SUPPLY? (You DO know you’re going to have to supply these, don’t you?)

The bottom line (sorry about the punnage) is that ordinary folk HAVE to have water for drinking and cooking (at least 2 litres per person per day) and flushing shit (5-9 litres a day). Everything else can go by the board: we can get filthier by the day, wear dirty clothes, pee in a pot and empty it down the shower drain: humans have always done this in times of crisis.* But we cannot stop drinking or shitting, and our shit needs to be safely disposed of. If you’d been warning water guzzlers that the toilets in their en-suite bathrooms are going to block up; if you had been showing pics of the portaloos they’ll have to hire; if you had supplied info on composting loos and encouraged the middle classes to install them years back – we might not be in this pickle.

And yet still not a single squeak from the City on this subject. For the love of all that is holy, START HARPING ON IT NOW, and don’t stop until the 60% get in line.

And all this stuff about forcing water-guzzlers to cut back, and punitive measures: if you had been cuffing water-abusers aggressively for the last two years, and if you had instituted sooner the punitively high tariffs for over-consumption you are only now rolling out, we’d have more water, and you’d have more much-needed lolly.

I actually feel bad about being so harsh, and I guess it’s no good crying over spilled water, but could the City PLEASE do better from now on? Those of us who are trying our best feel isolated and confused. Because it’s important to do more than moan, I’ll be starting to gather and publish every water-saving tip I can find: something the City should surely be doing too (there’s precious little on your website: some pretty pics, and instructions on how to find leaks and use greywater – that’s about it, and I had to go digging for it). I still hope that this is something we can all do together, rather than residents feeling that we’re on our own, or worse – pitted against City Hall.

For more on how the middle classes – the biggest guzzlers – can save water, click here.

*NB to remember: the poor of this country live in conditions close to Day Zero ALL THE TIME.

 

Helen Moffett