1001 Water-wise ways: rewiring our heads


Who else is finding that having to think about how we live with water is reframing the way they think about MANY other things? As we tackle some of the issues attached to the water crisis, I find I'm questioning certain ideas, or finding that certain views that have always been swimming around at the bottom of my mental fishtank are rising to the surface.

The other fascinating thing is talking to psychologists, social workers and activists about the big emotional swings we're seeing. There's something about fear of loss of water that presses all sorts of buttons. In the last month Cape Town has swung from panic to denial (with no doubt all the other stages of loss still to traverse), but with lots of "can-do" spirit as well. People who've had the money to install alternative water systems (adapting their gutters, putting in tanks and pumps, using their pools to harvest overflow) have been telling me how more confident and in control they feel as a result. Part of the price we pay for a so-called "civilised lifestyle" involves handing power over to the authorities and trusting them to take care of us. Taking that power back, when we can, can be incredibly liberating. The day I realised I could go off the water grid if I had to, simply by dint of hauling water from springs and wells (like millions across the globe) felt like strings loosening.

And so I've realised that being water-wise is more than accumulating tips and putting them into practice, even though these are super-helpful (and thanks to all those who keep sending them in -- my favourite this week, from my editor, was "Stick your sweaty gym clothes in the freezer instead of washing -- kills all the odour-causing bugs").

I've been setting my sights on those communal villages -- retirement complexes, gated estates, life-right villages, etc -- who, having failed to prepare their buildings or grounds for a water-scarce future, are now throwing bureaucratic obstacles in the way of those frantically trying to make their homes less dependent on municipal water. (This entire crisis has made me even more than usually allergic to red tape.) Among many other annoyances, I am rendered almost speechless by objections to rain-tanks on the basis of their appearance. "But they're an eye-sore!" scream some of the neighbours. "Must meet specifications as to colour and appearance be screened off preferred suppliers plans submitted to and approved by variance committee rabbit rabbit" drone the managing powers. This is a bit like objecting to the installation of blackout curtains on the eve of World War 2 on the grounds of "unsightliness".

And this got me wondering: what's the most beautiful city in the world in terms of built environment? (The pic at the top of this blog is a bit of a giveaway.) Why is Venice so breathtakingly beautiful? It's what you DON'T see. Not a car, truck, garage, parking lot, parking space, stretch of tarmac, road marking.

I don't think I've ever seen an attractive garage. They ruin the symmetry of houses, they're blocky and disproportionate, their lack of windows makes them look blank and sinister. But people would send for straitjackets if I lodged objections to them on the grounds that they made a property look ugly. What's more (and this will no doubt have folk storming my house brandishing pitchforks), I've never seen a 4X4 that wasn't hideous. Some cars (a very few) are indeed things of beauty: the vast hulks of metal and plastic I see parked everywhere in driveways are not. (I grant that a dusty bakkie or Landie on a gravel road is inoffensive.) Yet we take for granted that we're free to litter the landscape with our automobile paraphernalia; but a dark-green, pleasingly shaped Jojo tank is an offensive object that needs to be veiled. 

One water activist speculated that people object to seeing water tanks because they have uncomfortable associations with them: that upward mobility, keeping up with the Joneses, etc, means the status of a house with multiple bathrooms and water at the touch of a tap; a return to tanks and wells and windmills is somehow "primitive" or old-fashioned. If this is true, we should rather see these as signs of healthy independence and self-sufficiency.

Meanwhile, in the interests of knowledge as power, here are some of the interesting links on fresh thinking about water coming my way: here's information about an upcoming hackathon in Cape Town. I know nothing about it beyond what's on the website, but I like the emphasis on new ways of thinking. There's a preponderance of pale male faces among the keynote speakers, but I see Dr Bernelle Verster up there, and she's one of my favourite water warriors, with a great blog you can visit here.

And if you're have a great green water-wise idea or business you want to launch, Groundswell Africa, an initiative of Fetola, is looking for projects to mentor and help develop, but hurry, you need to apply and soon: all the details are here.

There are also some intriguing videos at this website: I dipped in and out (water pun done), enjoying the combination of water-saving ideas and the sight of sustainable lush gardens and pools.

And concerning the cessation of water for agricultural use, this report by the reputable Kerry Cullinan on Coke's use of water right here in Cape Town raises questions. If farmers have had their supply for growing food cut off, if workers have been laid off, flocks sold, orchards dug up -- surely the same sorts of principles should apply to the manufacture of non-essential foodstuffs, like soft drinks?

To go back to Venice: with hindsight, I'm astonished to see how many pics I took of fountains and wells because I thought they looked pretty or quaint or historic. Independent water sources or storage spots need to become things of beauty because of what they represent. A mental shift. 

Helen Moffett