1001 water-wise ways: A mixed bag
 I swear this pincushion is enjoying the rain. This beautiful pic is courtesy of journalist Miriam Mannak.

I swear this pincushion is enjoying the rain. This beautiful pic is courtesy of journalist Miriam Mannak.

It's the winter solstice! Which means we are exactly half-way through winter. To celebrate, here's another pick-'n-mix scoop of tips, which are still coming my way, thanks to you all. But first: with all this glorious, wonderful, heavenly rain, SURELY we can relax a bit? Alas, no. It looks good (isn't all the green great?); it sounds good; and the dams are 40% full! Well, in theory. The truth is a bit more complex than that. Theewaterskloof Dam (which supplies over half of Cape Town's water) is at 27% of capacity, and that's a long, long way away from 100%. But once again, I leave it to the truly heroic Tom Brown to explain things in his reliable regular water post. Read it all, and read it carefully, but the bottom line is that it needs to rain heavily all through July and August if (1) agriculture is going to get the allotment of water it needs in spring; and (2) the city is going to squeak through summer (along with the extra challenges of the season -- tourist influx, evaporation, etc). Sadly, here's why we can't break out the marching bands: "No large weather systems are currently predicted to strike the Cape during July and August."

But now for some tips.

* Possibly my most middle-class tip ever, and also possibly TMI, but as I'm not so much bucket-bathing on cold nights as swiftly swiping with a damp cloth, I've had my underarm hair professionally removed via laser. It was MUCH cheaper and quicker than I'd imagined, and not even that uncomfortable. It has the double green benefit that I'll never have to use disposable razors again -- a niggling source of plastic guilt and worry about whether the blades pose dangers in landfills.

* From the pits to the pits: gardeners, who is digging swales? One problem now that lawns have gone bald or been consigned to history is that some folk are paving over areas that used to be turf. Remember, the new principle is to increase every possible way of retaining water that falls from the sky, including using the earth as a sponge to soak it up. Here's a very useful piece by Kevin Winter of UCT's Future Water Institute that explains how you can adapt your patch of former lawn and harvest stormwater, and all the benefits that can result. 

A friend suggested I post more tips for flat and townhouse dwellers, and here I have not so much a tip as a Cautionary Tale: you might have spotted a bit of online frothing about the fact that according to new City by-laws, individual water meters are being installed in flats. A friend’s experience shows why this is a Very Good Idea: her block had a perennial spring emerging from under it and running out to sea (the residents harvested this, so not all was lost).  A plumber came to install water meters and found that the source of the "spring" was SOMEONE'S LEAKING GEYSER. So get active and even nosy: ask your agents, the body corporate or even the CoCT what the total water bill is for your block; if it’s high, press for plumbers or meter installers to double-check for leaks.

And, Andie Miller reminds me, if your toilet is still connected to the municipal supply, remember to check it for leaking -- ten minutes after flushing, hold a piece of toilet paper to the back of the bowl; if it gets wet, then you have a drip -- call a plumber asap.

Meanwhile, water-saving ways seem to have become engrained in public life, even as the rain pours down. I was really impressed when attending the Jewish Literary Festival in Gardens last weekend; I found the toilets stocked with buckets of harvested water, along with the following instructions:

 Applause, applause!

Applause, applause!

Another friend went up Table Mountain, and found this sign in the cable station toilet:

 Thanks to Helen Martin for taking and sharing the pic.

Thanks to Helen Martin for taking and sharing the pic.

This is great, not just in terms of water saving, but in terms of education and inspiration. Hundreds of thousands of visitors and tourists will see the above sign, for instance, and take the message home.

Helen Moffett
1001 water-wise ways: Getting to know and love your raintank
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Hasn't the rain been glorious? I feel emotional every time people share videos or pictures of waterfalls or streams and dams filling up. This weekend, I had to give a talk to visiting American students about the water crisis, and it was hard to be convincing about the urgency of the issue when everything was green and fresh-smelling, and rainwater was burbling merrily into the hotel pool.

All this rain means that those who installed rainwater tanks ahead of the coming winter now have brimful tanks. My sister literally cuddles hers. I am wildly envious, as the tanks delivered to our village three months ago haven't yet been installed at the house I rent, so I am still harvesting rain the slow, cold and wet way. Climbing into a bath of heated rainwater is still one of my favourite things, though.

Meanwhile, those with tanks are getting to know their quirks: you can't put them any old where -- they have to have firm foundations, the gutters have to be cleared before they can be hooked up -- and can or can't you drink the water?

I drink my rainwater if it's clear -- the first few buckets from the gutters  sometimes look a bit like chardonnay; if it's stood in a container until the particles from my roof tiles have settled at the bottom and I can pour from the top; and if I boil it first. Zero problems so far. But for screamingly obvious reasons I can't recommend this. It might be prudent to treat your rainwater tank as a source of water for everything except drinking. (Remember, it depends on the state of your gutters and the materials used for your roofing: my octogenarian parents drink their rainwater with nary a hiccup.)

First, a problem encountered by many: your gorgeous tank is full to overflowing: now what? All this water is still in a tank. Meanwhile, you have dishes to wash, clothes to launder, toilets to flush. So much depends on the layout of your house and immediate surrounds, your budget, your back muscles, and the availability of an excellent plumber or electrician. If your tank is close to where the indoor bathroom or kitchen is, you're in luck. A friend has hooked his tank (outside the kitchen) up so that it services his washing-machine, downstairs toilet, sink and dishwasher via a pressure pump.

But many are simply taking the water indoors via bucket. And for the elderly and infirm, this can be a problem, especially if you need to get water to an upstairs bathroom. (I've written here about avoiding injury in the water-warrior fray.) My friend Robin posted this ingenious solution.

First, take your brimming tank (in fact, the overflow "bin"):

 A familiar sight in Cape Town suburbs these days: raintank and repurposed wheelie garbage bin for overflow. Extra points for netting and creepers.

A familiar sight in Cape Town suburbs these days: raintank and repurposed wheelie garbage bin for overflow. Extra points for netting and creepers.

Next, IF you have an electric drill, get yourself this nifty little gadget: an electric drill pump. One hardware chain has it at R410. Good birthday present.

 The pic in orange explains all.

The pic in orange explains all.

Now dig out your hosepipes, and hook everything up. CAUTION! ACHTUNG! Electricity and water are not friends. Please proceed with care, and if your hands are weak or trembly, get someone with unknotted and steady hands to do this for you. Note that you can also do this with a cordless drill.

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Et voila, you should now be able to fill up your bath/washing machine/sinks/bathroom buckets painlessly. My friend said it took ten minutes of running the pump/drill to get his bath full:

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And there you have it. Let me know if this works for you, or if you have refinements. And now, to celebrate the literally heavenly rain of this week, here's an amazing waterfall pic by journalist and intrepid mountain hiker, Miriam Mannak. Enjoy.

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Many thanks to Miriam, and to Robin Palmer for the pics and explanations above.

Helen Moffett
1001 water-wise ways: Cape Town, take a bow
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Dear middle-class Capetonians,

I'm poring over the latest dam reports, provided by the reliable ShowMePaarl website (if you haven't bookmarked this site as a source for clear, intelligent and truthful reporting on our water situation, do it now). It takes me a while to figure out the pleasingly complex graphs, but they're carefully explained, and right now, while it's not good news yet, I am SO proud of us.

I was telling friends how chuffed I was to see the drop in household water use, and everyone shrieked "Don't write a blog about how well we're doing, we'll relax and go back to taking twenty-minute showers!" Ha. I don't think so -- we're not that dim. I think many, maybe even most former water guzzlers understand that our situation remains grave, and that it's not going to be resolved any time soon, no matter how much rain falls this winter.

The graphs in the dam report above make it clear that while the wonderful rains (falling in the catchment areas, praise be) are helping (we're at just over 23% of storage capacity at the moment, slightly up from this time last year), what is really making the difference is our water-saving behaviour. It's not the little bit of extra water that's helping so much: it's how much less we're using of the little water we do have. Scroll down to the graph in the report with all the red, yellow and blue. That blue swathe is the impact of our water-frugal behaviour. Impressive, no? It may be my imagination (I hope not), but we seem to be working in partnership with the life-saving stuff falling from the skies, as opposed to squawking "More! More!" from the cuckoo-nests we inhabit.

So WELL DONE US.

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It's worth noting that nowhere else in the world has a middle-class urban population cut its domestic water consumption so swiftly and dramatically. Not Melbourne, not even Sao Paulo AFTER its taps ran dry, and most certainly not California, which has taken four years to get its average water consumption down from 85 GALLONS per person per day to 60 GALLONS (a ridiculously lavish 227 litres per day!!). Yes, you may now pause to feel smug for a minute, all you 50-litre-a-day users. The California target, during their recent prolonged and devastating drought, was to cut water use by twenty per cent. We've cut ours, in a year, by sixty per cent.

But (and you knew this was coming) are we out of the woods yet? Hell, no. We are unlikely EVER to be out of the woods again. The woods are where we live now. So we need to keep on keeping on: saving every drop, harvesting whatever we can, begrudging every turn of the tap. On the days when I feel grumbly about the extra water chores, I remind myself that this is how most people live; fetching, carrying, heating and disposing of all the water their family uses.

Some things now come automatically; some we're still getting used to. Now that rain IS falling, many of us are getting to grips with the bulky green lifesavers standing in our yards, and they can take some getting used to. Am brewing a piece on how to love, live with and even share your rainwater tank(s). But now I must put on lipstick and go and launch my little water book with a splash.

One last thing for today: Tom Brown, who does the dam and water reports I rely on most, you get not only a bow and multiple curtain calls, but a huge bouquet of (waterwise) blomme. Thank you for your sterling service to your fellow citizens.

Helen Moffett
1001 water-wise ways: Everything AND the kitchen sink
 This beautiful watery painting, "Mbashe Lagoon", is by Cape Town artist  Angela Briggs . Posted here with permission -- thank you!

This beautiful watery painting, "Mbashe Lagoon", is by Cape Town artist Angela Briggs. Posted here with permission -- thank you!

Right, a literary festival, several deadlines and many blessed glorious millilitres of rain later, and I'm diving into watery matters again. One slight hitch is that my camera has evaporated, and I take most of the pics for my blog myself. Ah well.

By now, the "tip jar" is brimming (I know, I know, I can't help myself). From "water-saving things couples can do together" to the inner and under-workings of sewage systems on estates (fascinating if a bit shudder-making), from the pesky business of handling grey water to "planting the rain", they keep coming.

But first an NB announcement for Capetonians; if you're within striking distance of Kalk Bay Books next Thursday, we're launching 101 Water Wise Ways (yes, the water book you all helped create -- your name might be in the Acknowledgements! Read an extract here.) The time is at 6 for 6.30pm,  Leopard's Leap is kindly donating the wine, and the passionate, clever and entertaining Leonie Joubert, journalist and green Amazon of note, will be in conversation with me. Come say hi!

Now, those tips: my dear friend and fellow author Paige (who helped me edit this book, and who is a dating columnist, among other things) was asked about romantic water-saving tips, and we came up a brilliant idea: for a first date, visit a spring to harvest water together. No outfit pressure (jeans and takkies are de rigeur), chatty people all around, the water topic is a great ice-breaker (oh c'mon, how was I going to avoid that one?), and if your would-be date thinks it's a CRAZY idea, do you really want to go out with them? Then you can go off for a drink/coffee/dinner with the glow that comes from participation in the public good, and several litres of water to boot.

From romance to sewage: the environmental group for the estate I live on has put together a detailed description of exactly how our "internal" pipes connect up to the municipal system -- most middle-class estates have similar systems. I know we're all letting our yellow mellow and using grey water for flushing, but this brought it home to me again: don't let paper clog up your toilet -- rather go Greek and chuck pee paper in a little sanitary bin. Even if paper doesn't block YOUR loo, it can create major headaches just a few metres down the line, as it were. Also: we need to flush more often, if possible, than once a day. If you're not producing enough greywater (remember the No 1 rule is not to use drinking water to flush), then harvest rainwater specifically for this purpose, even if it's just a bucket on the balcony.

And is anyone else a bit fed-up with the smell of greywater after it's been standing around a few days? I have two problems: the water that empties out the washing-machine and which is saved for flushing; and bath/shower water after it's been hanging about a bit. After a bit of experimentation, I find that a few good shakes of tea-tree oil into the water helps a lot. What are your solutions?

And speaking of greywater, if you have a family, or are elderly, one Retief Krige has come up with an extremely nifty device to help you channel grey water directly into your toilet cistern. It's a little wrap-around reservoir you can attach to any kind of cistern and remove again easily -- no plumber or plumbing tinkering required. Retief kindly offered to send me one to test, but I was already sufficiently impressed by the You Tube videos showing how to install it and how it works -- I imagine it would be really helpful for children or anyone with arthritic hands, or who might battle with buckets and watering cans. Also great for guesthouses and gyms -- at my book festival, it was a bit of a mission hauling my bucket from the guesthouse shower to the loo and then disassembling their cistern! If anyone has tried this product (the Waterloo Greywater Bank), let me know how it works for you.

And I know we're not out the woods, very far from it, but hasn't the recent rain been glorious? I'm even pleased to see weeds returning to the no longer desertified garden (how to tell when a drought is really, really bad: even the weeds die). Am I the only one who gets the most enormous kick out of doing the washing up in rainwater? And there: I just dragged in the kitchen sink.

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Helen Moffett
1001 water-wise 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