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
1001 Water-wise ways: Green fingers and green pools

Back in sinewy Cape Town with its relentlessly blue skies, after another flight over great swathes of white sand where once were huge dams. It was glorious and a bit strange to visit somewhere where everything was soaked through and through, where 42 mm of rain fell in one night, where I had to dry my laundry in front of the fireplace because this wet stuff kept plummeting down from the skies.

 River in spate, only steps from the parental front gate. It felt like a pilgrimage site, a place to stop in awe.

River in spate, only steps from the parental front gate. It felt like a pilgrimage site, a place to stop in awe.

I've been thinking about the best water-wise ways to tackle the two biggest drains on water supply by the middle classes: gardens and pools. I was also fascinated to read that one of the most aggressively water-savvy and saving cities in the world is (wait for it): Las Vegas. Here, citizens were PAID to join the "war on grass" by digging up their lawns and replacing them with desert plants. Patrolling "water police" fine owners for letting water run off their properties and into drains (CoCT, TAKE NOTE.)

But what do we replace lawns with? Here I am no expert. But my folks definitely fall into that category, so I asked them.

I was mildly horrified by their first answer: Astroturf. Which I associate with miniature golf. They insisted: for those for whom gardens are a place for children to play, this is a great solution. I was a bit hesitant until I considered that bits of old, quietly disintegrating carpet are used by all the savvy recycling-conscious gardeners I know to suppress weeds and grass when preparing new beds. It lets water soak through, keeps the soil warm and damp, smothers the plants you don't want, and is also great for shaping gardens and creating new paths. My mama reminded me that in the UK, one of the biggest markets for carpets is for outdoor use: carpets made to resemble wood bark are especially popular.

The first rule for replacing lawns, however, is indisputable: whatever you choose, it MUST be permeable. We have to get as much water soaking back into the earth as possible; paving over the soil (aka water sponge) with stone, concrete, tarmac, bricks, decking and so on, sends billions of litres of run-off water charging down storm drains and out to sea.

The obvious choice to replace grass is indigenous groundcovers, but choosing the right plants is a long-term process and a specialist business I will leave to experts like Rupert Koopman and Erina Botha.

 My mama is starting a garden afresh. So much of green and softness.

My mama is starting a garden afresh. So much of green and softness.

When I moved to a new home with waaaaay too much (mostly dead) lawn, I had my own experiments to conduct. Gravel is expensive and no one likes walking on it, but it's permeable. It also crunches in a way that I consider a good security measure. One swathe of grass became the new veg bed. This gobbles up all the compost, mulch and blackwater I can throw at it, and has somehow miraculously survived the drought.

I've also experimented with peach and apricot pips (very pretty, but ow ow to walk on with bare feet -- and the cats say the same); discarded thatch (very slippery for humans to walk on, but attractive, and the cats approve); bark chips and bark mulch. The latter look fine, they're good for the soil, pets and kids play on/in the stuff happily, but do not attempt to spread during southeaster season. They work best in smaller gardens, or those with lots of shade/shelter cast by trees and shrubs, where they have a chance to "knit" into the top layer of the soil. But I really am a beginner in this respect, and would welcome your ideas.

I know nothing about pools, but I'm seeing more and more people who've rejigged their chlorinated pools into ecopools, and are thrilled with the results. Here, for inspiration, are two photos taken by author Bridget Pitt of her family's converted pool.

 I feel cooler just looking at this.

I feel cooler just looking at this.

 Frogs and spiders: often associated with witches in fairytales. You know what witches DON'T have a problem with? Flies and mozzies.

Frogs and spiders: often associated with witches in fairytales. You know what witches DON'T have a problem with? Flies and mozzies.

Helen Moffett
1001 Water-wise ways: World Water Day
 Big skies, big mountains, big veld, big rain. Photo credit: Rodney Moffett

Big skies, big mountains, big veld, big rain. Photo credit: Rodney Moffett

Yesterday was World Water Day, which here in South Africa was marked by flooding in two (if not more) provinces, and relentlessly continuing drought in another three. For a sobering update on the Cape's dire situation, read this (the graphs are especially useful -- and scary, although there's cheering news about new water sources).

Here's the message we all need to pay attention to: "...although statements have been made that “Day Zero” will not happen in 2018 this is wholly dependent upon good rains falling in the dam catchments before end-June. While it is reasonable to expect that the SW Cape will receive rain in June, if good rains do not fall ... the authorities will have little option but to implement stage-2 collection/rationing (“Day Zero”) during July 2018."

A further caution: "Water consumption has been increasing during March. It may be that recent statements by political leadership that 'Day Zero' will not occur in 2018 have lulled folks into a false sense of security."

So we can't afford to blink. Meanwhile, I’m currently in the Eastern Free State on a family visit. On the flight from Cape Town to Bloemfontein, we flew over Theewaterskloof Dam. Or, to be more accurate, TheeNOwaterskloof Desert. We were literally shocked into silence. Mile upon mile of glaring white sand where there should be water gives the lie to the magical thinking that a month or two of good rain this winter, and we’ll all be sorted out. This dam supplies 54% of the greater Cape Town region’s water, and it’s painfully clear that a single season of “decent rain” is NOT going to refill it; it's going to take years or even decades.

We arrived in Bloem, the thunder clapped, the skies opened, and sheets of water poured down. There was something poignant and funny seeing the reactions of the Kapenaars, including ourselves. We were snapping pics of the thrilling sight, taking videos, shrieking “Puddles! There are PUDDLES!”, pointing and staring at the brollies being unfurled (I haven’t touched an umbrella in three years). Then came the squawking: “But where are their rainwater harvesting systems? While haven’t they converted all their planters into water storage units? OMG, that water is running down the tarmac and into a DRAIN, can’t we scoop it up somehow?”

It wasn’t just the rain that was a novelty, sadly. The Capeys trotted into the airport toilets and reeled out again in shock. I was one of those who felt obliged to flush, given the queue behind me, and the fact that I was now in A Foreign Country. HORRORS, no dual flush, and what sounded like Victoria Falls flooding into the cistern when I gingerly pushed the button. Then came the basins: no hand sanitiser, no pressure or aerator fittings, no cut-off mechanism; instead taps that gushed forth like geysers. The twittering from the Capetonians was quite something. “It felt all wrong flushing,” said one woman, “like I was littering.”

On the long drive that followed, we shrieked in chorus at standard rural sights: “The dams! The dams are FULL!” “Look, look, that river – it’s running so fast!” “Wow, see how lush the grass is – and look at the fantastic condition of the cows grazing on it!” “Hey, those sheep are drinking from a reservoir!”

It was the colours that undid me. I hadn’t realised how desiccated the Cape appears; not just the bone-dry rivers or sludgy lakes, the dead grass, the bare soil, the rattling trees and shrubs; this last summer literally bleached out the colours.

Now, everywhere we looked, the land and sky and mountains were saturated: not just with dozens of shades of green, but silver and grey and mauve and red and chocolate brown. We could see distant cloudbursts trailing indigo hair and sunlight breaking out and turning clouds salmon and gold. The valleys between the blue mountains marching away into Lesotho were frothing with mist. Confused sunflowers turned in all directions seeking the sporadic sun. And all this purple prose is because we had come from the Place of Dust to the Land of Colour: the colours that water brings. It was a mind-explosion of note.

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Four days later, it hasn’t stopped raining here, there are floods in KZN, and flood warnings in much of the rest of the country. This while the Cape turns to biltong. So on World Water Day, perhaps we might consider what we have done to the planet to make the skies either drench us or deprive us of the essential liquid we need for life. The short version is that we have broken the weather; the question we now face is how to fix it. (By now, any climate change denialists are up there with those who disbelieve the theory of gravity and maintain that we cling to the earth because of tiny magnets on the soles of our feet.)

Part of the solution, as we know by now, is to retool our relationship with water. So today’s tips are for everyone in the world, but especially the rest of South Africa. Everywhere we’ve gone on this brief trip beyond the Western Cape, from malls to coffee-shops to guesthouse, water-sparing devices are glaring by their absence.

Every public facility or private hospitality provider needs to wake up to the scarcity of water (even if floods are pouring down your street right now), and retrofit their bathrooms to save as much as possible. Every new building should install at least the basics: even if no greywater recycling, there should be dual-flush toilets, smaller cisterns, taps fitted with water-throttling devices; and for the love of all that is dehydrated, install rain-harvesting systems.

Good news: water-sparing habits are hard to break. In four days, I’ve had one bath (water shared with family members) and one shower, and this has felt lavishly profligate. While having my "luxury" shower, I caught myself turning off the taps automatically as soon as rinsing was done.

I think this is the way of the future: if we combine canny water harvesting with sensible water use, our grandchildren are going to be able to eat, drink and live in a full-colour world in years to come. That's my Water Day hope.

 

Helen Moffett