1001 Waterwise ways: some snippets and a poem
 Oasis in the heart of the city: Green Point Park.

Oasis in the heart of the city: Green Point Park.

Lots of water information and advice piling up, but a lot of it is Serious and takes Proper Study. (This week's lesson: learning about swales -- shallow depressions that we can create to sponge up rainwater. More soon!) I'm totting up many useful links with water-wise and green information and tips that I'll be posting in the next little while; some of these are scary, some necessary, some are just plain good news. For example, in 101 Water Wise Ways, I talk about composting as an aid to water-saving -- and I just heard that the City of Cape Town is giving away free compost bins, a boon for homes with small or no gardens: check how to get yours here.

The rain that's been falling is such a relief that it's hard to stay on top of all the statistics and figures, especially the water projections for the future, but my best go-to site is Paarl-based (which is well situated in terms of where rainwater actually needs to land -- in the huge Boland dams that supply most of the city's water). Bookmark this site and read it regularly: it gives reliable figures, and explains the good news and the bad news; it also explains the impact of water needed for agriculture, which (let me get up on my soapbox and repeat) is NOT a luxury: we all need to eat, and nearly all food starts in a farmer's field.

The graphs take a bit of puzzling over, but are very helpful, if a bit scary: one thing I like is that they clearly show how our water-saving habits are currently saving our bacon. We're now down to 505 million litres per day (yay us, apparently no other modern city has managed to go so low per citizen per day), but we still need to get down to 450 m/l/per day if we're going to survive next summer. So don't let the sound of rain of the roof lull you into relaxing your guard: we still need to be saving every drop.

Meanwhile I am compiling green tips that slot alongside water-frugal habits, and believe me, there are thousands of them. Alas, I have also been reading that small band of environmental scientists who believe we're past the point of no return for the planet. This renders me very blue (as opposed to green -- OK, terrible joke), but it's a real concern, as this article and many like it show: can we actually make a difference at this point?

I think the magnificent way many citizens of Cape Town have curbed their water consumption is one answer to that question. And then my friend Liesl posted a poem, by the American poet, farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry, that made me breathe a little easier. Because it speaks to that tiny attitudinal shift that can open us up, so that we connect with our world on a local and individual level. To paraphrase the central message of most faiths (and many songwriters): love is still the answer, even to the environmental crisis. Here's the poem.

Love This Miraculous World

Our understandable wish
to preserve the planet
must somehow be
reduced
to the scale of our
competence.
Love is never abstract.
It does not adhere
to the universe
or the planet
or the nation
or the institution
or the profession,
but to the singular
sparrows of the street,
the lilies of the field,
“the least of these
my brethren.”
Love this
miraculous world
that we did not make,
that is a gift to us.

- Wendell Berry

 Wildflower meadows and trees: medicine for the planet. Stourhead, UK, in summer.

Wildflower meadows and trees: medicine for the planet. Stourhead, UK, in summer.

Helen Moffett
1001 Waterwise ways: celebrating rain
 Water = peace.

Water = peace.

I don't think I've ever heard this many expressions of relief and gratitude: in the last week, the greater Cape Town area has seen good rains. We'll never take these for granted again: unless you're a hermit, you'll have seen that extraordinary video clip of the rain coursing down a bone-dry riverbed near Worcester, and everyone who has rain tanks is purring and posting pics of them online with captions "FULL AT LAST!"

At the same time, I've been getting some interesting new tips, and doing a lot of reading -- but most of these involve sewage and waste water recycling, and while they're interesting, they're not really what I'm in the mood for right now (but I shall SOON reveal the True Stories about what happens when we flush while living on an estate -- You Won't Believe What Happens Next).

Instead I'd like to celebrate the rain. Also to utter my usual Cassandra-like warnings: we may all be dancing on the spot, with three whole months of winter still to come, but the blessed rain has barely touched sides. It's had almost no effect on the bigger dams (which supply over half our water) whatsoever; and even if it rains every week for the entire winter, we'd still have to go a long way to replenish our water supplies to the point of relaxing our vigilance. So: we all need to keep on saving and harvesting water.

But there's no doubt that the scent of rain and soaked soil and vegetation are cheering us all immensely, along with the fuzz of green that is Nature's immediate and miraculous response. So let's relax and look at something beautiful to celebrate, at the very least, the end of one of the longest and hardest summers Cape Town has ever seen.

 "Echo Stream 2" by Simon Sephton.

"Echo Stream 2" by Simon Sephton.

This is one of Simon Sephton's extraordinary photographs of water. He specialises in what I think of as portraits of water, which he crops and enlarges to form beautiful images that look like pieces of abstract art -- and yet the sense of liquid and flow remains. He takes pictures of water in its "natural" context, so often rocks of the Table Mountain chain, river pebbles, floating foliage, and the tracery of reflected branches weave into his images.

Here, take a look:

 "Beyond Blue" by Simon Sephton. Taken right here in Silvermine Nature Reserve.

"Beyond Blue" by Simon Sephton. Taken right here in Silvermine Nature Reserve.

This tells you why he's so passionate about photographing water: https://www.simonsephton.com/

Here's one I loved so much, I bought a print:

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And I can't resist posting one more:

 "Otter gold" by Simon Sephton.

"Otter gold" by Simon Sephton.

So thank you, Simon, for giving us weary water warriors and worriers something wonderful to rest our eyes on, and a fresh way of really looking at something we all used to take for granted.

Helen Moffett
1001 Water-wise ways: what's next?
 We can't quite see around the next bend...

We can't quite see around the next bend...

It's Earth Day, and I want to write about a very uncomfortable emotion: despair. My social media feeds are full of chirpy advice: "Plant more trees for Earth Day! Resolve to recycle!" and gloomy truths: "Recycling has little impact: produce less stuff in the first place. Capitalism is broken."

After the great Water Panic, came the Great Water Silence, but now we're getting back into the swim (sorry) of this water thing, and the tips are trickling (really sorry) back in again. Some of us are (rightfully) proud of how well we've done in cutting back our water usage (to levels way below those set for water-saving in drought-stricken California, for instance); some of us (especially on research teams and working for green NPOs) are a bit exasperated with the arrival of international scientists and journalists all prodding and taking notes on how we're managing to file away for their future reference.

What has this got to do with despair? The truth is that many of us have realised this truly is the new normal: we are never going back to assuming that water will always come out a tap whenever we want it to. I see little changes everywhere -- things like restaurants providing "pee paper bins": we've gotten quite robust, even blase about such things.

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But what else can we do? And whispering at the back of our minds is the reality that the water crisis (which will slowly spread around the world, and which is already an ongoing issue for arid countries and regions) is embedded in a much bigger crisis -- the way we've taken our only home and habitation and rendered it almost unfit for use.

I sometimes feel my brain splitting as I swing between a sense of self-reliance and confidence in my water harvesting routines, the feeling that we can definitely handle this water shortage, and utter horror at the broader context: the fact that we've broken the weather and choked the oceans and wiped out thousands upon thousands of species that were once woven into the vast tapestry of buzzing, swarming, fecund life that sustains us all.

The water crisis has made us aware -- often uncomfortably -- of the fact that we've kicked our poor planet almost to pieces. We're no longer flushing with drinking water or watering lawns: do we have to consider the bigger picture too? Climate change (which some scientists say should be called "climate catastrophe"), pollution, overconsumption and all the other things that make me want to stick my head under a pillow? It's complex and frightening, if not downright terrifying, and we feel helpless in the face of it. (Here's a very good summary by Wits academic Vishwas Satgar of what's going on, and it's super-scary -- although there's hope at the end.)

But it's not just hopelessness we feel: increasingly, there's a creeping grief sneaking up on us, and one that's apparently incurable: sorrow for the loss  and destruction of elements of our home planet and our immediate environment even as we live in it, to which I'd add tremendous anxiety about what threatening changes lie in the immediate future. Here's an excellent article on the phenomenon of "ecological grief" for those who wrestle with such feelings.

But all this serious stuff carries with it the risk that our despair and sorrow (if we can even allow ourselves to feel these uncomfy emotions) can render us immobile. And that's the most disastrous outcome of all.

It's corny, but true: think globally, act locally. And there's so much we can do at the local level. Look around for win-win solutions: keep up the recycling, even if it isn't a perfect solution, because it supplies jobs and occupation to marginal and vulnerable people. Declutter your home and donate your furniture and clothes to shelters for battered women and children. Plant spekbooms -- lots of them -- because trees (especially these ones) DO soak up carbon from the air; and keep up the composting because soil CAN grab onto carbon (and the richer the soil, the more effectively it will hold and filter water).

So while I'll continue to post water-wise suggestions, I'm hoping to include other green tips you might like to send along, to make our water-savvy ways part of an overall strategy to tread more lightly on the earth. And because this is such a daunting topic, I want to post more beautiful photos (by professional and truly gifted friends) of water, inspiring links on liquid issues, maybe even a poem or two. To remind us that this is an extraordinary world, and that we can do extraordinary things to nurture and protect it. And this starts with stopping for a moment to appreciate it.

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Helen Moffett
1001 Water-wise ways: Spring stories

I'm at a bit of a crossroads with this water blog. The tips have dried up, as water-savviness has become second nature, and we have our water-saving and harvesting routines down pat. (I sincerely HOPE this is the case.) My book, 101 Water Wise Ways, which throws all the best advice you've given me between two covers, is out in the wild. It's even been spotted in my favourite book shop, The Book Lounge in Roeland Street, Cape Town.

 I love that my water book -- seen here at the Book Lounge -- is surrounded by poetry and art. And am still delighted at the simple loveliness of the cover. So thrilled with Bookstorm's high-quality production.

I love that my water book -- seen here at the Book Lounge -- is surrounded by poetry and art. And am still delighted at the simple loveliness of the cover. So thrilled with Bookstorm's high-quality production.

(Just in case you're still looking for ways to survive and thrive on less water, you can get a copy here -- at a very nice price, I see.)

So what next? Especially, as a friend said gloomily, "What we need now is 101 Ways to Make It Rain." So much depends on that rain, and whether it will arrive, and in the quantities in which we need it. Unlike Gauteng, we have no Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme to gallop to the rescue. But it's no good panicking about events over which we have no control -- all we can do now is wait.

In the meantime, I want to keep listening to people's water stories, and one benefit of collecting from springs is getting to do exactly that. Today I visited, for the first time, the spring at St James -- I needed to do laundry, and for that I like to harvest water that is clean, but not safe to drink.

An hour and a half later, I staggered away with my 20 litres of water, feeling like I'd been a bit player in a soap opera for the afternoon. There is so much about race, gender and class -- and also human connection -- that goes on at springs, it's fascinating and humbling and frustrating, all at once.

So the dilemma was this. The queue was short when I arrived: only nine people ahead of me. Directly in front of me were two women -- one with only two empty bottles, another with three small children -- maybe eight, six and four in age -- and five 5-litre bottles. There were a few men, a few 25-litre containers. The queue was moving along slowly -- there are only two outlet pipes, and they do not gush, they trickle. Then a couple stepped up. They filled several 25-litre containers, and over eighty 5-litre containers. They had a huge 4X4, and every time we thought they'd finished, they'd dash over to it and drag another ten containers out of its depths. Look, they worked hard and fast, given that they were not young -- but it was pretty galling nonetheless.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were keeping the smallies out the traffic, which whisks by only feet from the springs. The littlest one had a bottle, which he kept dropping and then chasing as it rolled into the road, and his mother, burdened with containers and two other kids, couldn't always grab him in time.

OK, so the question is: when does one say something? Especially when yours is the only white face in the queue? I shut up for a long while: I was enjoying the chat, and there are worse ways to spend a mild early-autumn afternoon than standing by the False Bay coast, looking at the changing light on the waves and the cloud shadows on the mountains. But I felt for the two women ahead of me, and especially for those tiny kids. So when 4X4 Couple took over both pipes, I had a few words to say, and they relinquished the slower-running outlet to the mum with children.

 Photo credit: Ken Barris, used with permission. This wasn't the exact view I was enjoying at the spring, but close enough. And that's certainly what the clouds looked like.

Photo credit: Ken Barris, used with permission. This wasn't the exact view I was enjoying at the spring, but close enough. And that's certainly what the clouds looked like.

I'd love to know what that mother's story was: the way her oldest boy helped her made me think this was a daily ritual. They had no car: once their five containers were filled (and the littlest's bottle as well), the two older kids each hefted a container (the little girl was dwarfed by hers), the mother took the remaining three, and off they trudged in the direction of Kalk Bay. Was that their water for the evening? Drinking, cooking and washing?

Likewise the young woman who had waited an hour and a half, texting on her phone, to fill two 5-litre containers. Then she hopped on a taxi heading towards Masiphumelele. Was that her daily ration? Does she go to the spring every day after work?

Meanwhile, the gentleman alongside me was happy to tell me his story: he was retired, but his wife still worked, so he had taken over the family laundry. He had four 25-litre containers, and he explained that each load of washing took two containers. Once a week, he fetched water from this spring and took it home to wash his family's clothes.

The thing that's worth remembering: rain could pour from the skies, the dams could fill up, but for some of the people I saw today, nothing will change. They will continue the hard work of hand-hauling water day in, day out, year in, year out, because it's the only option available to them. And that is sobering indeed.

I took a photo, but I couldn't get everyone's names (the roar of the traffic and the running water made it hard for me to hear). However, the individuals in this pic were enthusiastic about appearing in a blog -- or maybe they were just being kind and indulging me.

 Water-collectors at the St James spring. Long waits, but much patience and courtesy. Pic taken with permission (active encouragement, in fact).

Water-collectors at the St James spring. Long waits, but much patience and courtesy. Pic taken with permission (active encouragement, in fact).


My spring suggestions, if I was the boss of the world: solo parents with small children should get a priority pass at springs, especially if there's more than one outlet: a kind of speed queue. The traffic department should, for the love of all that is sane, put traffic cones or SOME sort of calming device alongside this and other springs -- some of the trucks that whizzed past practically jolted the fillings out my head. It amazes me that there hasn't been a nasty accident (yet) that I know of. And let's apply what I think of as the Newlands rule: you can take as much water as you like -- but no more than 25 litres at a time. After that, you go to the back of the queue and start again.

Oh yes, my laundry! Once I got home to my middle-class machine, it went like clockwork. I don't even bother with water-saving programs. I know exactly how much harvested water to pour in when: 18 litres at the start, another 18 the second the rinse cycle starts, 8 for the spin cycle, and boom, a perfect wash sans municipal water. And all the grey water gets saved for flushing.
 

Helen Moffett
1001 Water-wise ways: All quiet on the water front
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Has anyone else noticed the palpable silence on the subject of Cape Town water crisis in the media? No one seems to be talking about it. Or rather, my contacts tell me no one official is ALLOWED to talk about it. Cape Town's perilous teeter on the edge of Watergeddon has become a political hot potato -- but also a potential good news story. National, provincial and local government all want to claim the credit if and when there is good news; none of them, after the initial festival of blame, want to touch the hot potato. As far as I can make out, there now seems to be a consensus that informing citizens that Day Zero would occur on a specific day was a terrible mistake: next time round, they'll break the news differently, and there will be different contingency plans.

I also think citizens are exhausted. Our taps haven't run dry yet, we've become accustomed to bucket baths, winter with its promise of rain is nearly here. We're hunkering down, watching the skies and hoarding our buckets.

Or are we really? Behind the scenes, there is frantic activity: exactly like those swans seen gliding serenely down rivers, there is a great deal of invisible paddling taking place. The City is taking advantage of this period of waiting, the lull before the storm that will break if not enough rainstorms break, to waterproof Cape Town and its institutions as extensively and swiftly as humanly possible. Because even if we have excellent rains, in six short months, it will be summer again. And another summer with empty dams will break us, unless we have made alternative plans.

Meanwhile, Capetonians are a canny lot. I thought perhaps we'd all gone to sleep, but last week I visited my favourite drinking-water spring in Newlands, and was pleased to see that while it was as busy as ever, things were extremely orderly. Perhaps people have NOT tossed away their water containers without a care, lulled into a false sense of security -- and every drop hauled from a spring is a drop spared from our dams.

Since I was last there, a permanent police caravan has been installed, and no one is allowed past it with more than one 25-litre container. This means that folk bustle up and down the road with their containers, joining the back of the queue each time. Here I met Lien, who was using a skateboard to zoot her containers to and from the spring. Now that is clever.

 Lien with her water-transporting skateboard. Top marks for improvisation. Photo taken and posted with permission; she gave me her full name and permission to use her first name in this blog.

Lien with her water-transporting skateboard. Top marks for improvisation. Photo taken and posted with permission; she gave me her full name and permission to use her first name in this blog.

I also see that ropes have been installed to create orderly queues, that the 25-litre collection principle is now up on posters, and (possibly nicest of all), there are instructions on how to donate to the Maitland Cottage Hospital (part of Red Cross Children's Hospital) -- which is just across the road.

 Visitors to the spring are encouraged, if they can, to make donations to this public children's hospital, the only specialist orthopaedic paediatric hospital in Africa.

Visitors to the spring are encouraged, if they can, to make donations to this public children's hospital, the only specialist orthopaedic paediatric hospital in Africa.

It all made me hopeful; even if Day Zero comes, and we have to queue for water, there will be systems in place -- and we will make them work.

Helen Moffett