1001 water-wise ways: a cautionary tale of two cauliflowers

The white one came from the supermarket. The purple one I grew.

The white one came from the supermarket. The purple one I grew.

In late October 2016, I planted a tiny cauliflower seedling. The drought was biting, but not yet as badly as this summer. At first, I just kept the seedling wet. It soon grew into a magnificent flourish of leaves. And was that the hint of a cauli I saw? So I kept watering it. And it thirstily gulped down at least a litre every other day. For nearly three months! Even though some of it was black water (from the washing-up), there was no getting away from it: to grow ONE cauli (admittedly delish and beautiful – stir-fried with basil pesto in the end) took close on 45 litres of water.

Which brings me to the tip of the week: visit just a few of the websites that tell you how much water it takes to produce food. The figures are sledge-hammering: 1 239 litres to produce one pizza? I couldn't actually get my head around the numbers. But no, the sources explain clearly and in scientific terms how much water goes into growing food, cleaning, preparing and processing it, and it is a hell-no-you-must-be-joking amount. So one thing is crystal-clear: in an era where it's horrendously unfashionable, if not draconian, to tell folk to finish what's on their plates, one of the least water-wise things you can do is waste food.

This is something to discuss with your family, especially teens. It's a good idea to ask everyone to dish up less than they might actually want, and to go back for seconds if they still have a gap to fill. And not wasting food goes double and triple for restaurants. I've lost count of the times I've seen I've seen kids order a milkshake, burger and chips, inhale the milkshake (which arrives first), then eat a few chips and send the burger back almost untouched. Apart from the ethics of dissing the minimum-wage earner in the kitchen who has to clear up, the water tab is gargantuan. How to get around this, especially given the often over-large portions doled out in restaurants? Doggie-bags. Better still, take your own Tupperware containers when eating out and bring everything you don't consume home. Yes, I know what it looks like, but consider this: do this just ONCE and your mortified teenager will never again push away a burger after just one bite.

If you can bear to go back and look at those figures again, something else will hit you between the eyes: the vast difference in water consumption between producing meat and vegetables, with grains coming somewhere in the middle. This alone is an argument for eating far less meat (or going vegetarian or vegan) and making veg a bigger part of our daily diets. Also, production and processing add megalitres more to the water footprint of all packaged and pre-prepared foods. Sometimes this is no bad thing: I now buy cauliflowers from stores, simply because the economies of scale involved in growing veg in large amounts usually means that less water is used.

Nevertheless, we all have to eat; and ever since humans first started making fires, food has been tied up with social cohesion, family rituals, pleasure and celebration. No one hates food guilt more than me. So what's to do? I think it was writer and green food activist Michael Pollan who said: "Eat real food. Not too much of it. Mainly vegetables." As someone who drools over artichokes, aubergines and asparagus (and we haven't even moved onto the second letter of the alphabet yet), this isn't as extreme as it might sound.

These are of course long-term strategies, but now that Day Zero has been pushed back again, and we are all crossing our fingers and thinking that maybe we might dodge a bullet, it's the long-term stuff that will save our hides in the end. Certainly our childrens's hides.

Thinking long-term about tackling the real Tyrannosaurus Rex in the room – climate change – needn't result in hapless despair. Interestingly enough, the only cure for global warming is to generate more water by planting more green stuff, especially indigenous trees. These release moisture into the air, hold it in the soil, and have a moderating effect on temperature. If you want to leave a truly valuable legacy, plant a small forest. We need to stop creating English cottage-style and other thirsty exotic gardens in the arid Cape, dig up our lawns and replace them with beautiful, hardy, indigenous groundcovers and plants.

Indigenous gardening will make you fall in love with spring all over again.

Indigenous gardening will make you fall in love with spring all over again.

Allied to this, if you want to protect Mother Nature, improve your soil. Feed it and don’t cover it. Earth is a valuable sponge that helps hold our water supplies and is a source for evaporation back up into the air. Concrete, tarmac, paving stones and decks render the soil sterile and dead, and send rain run-off into drains and the sea, where it's wasted – that's if it doesn't first cause flooding.

Now back to cauliflower: when putting in a new veg garden last July, I planted one cauli seedling. "You're on your own," I told it. "No extra water for you." Well, with the scant winter rains and kitchen water poured through a home-made filter, this:


became this:


... which, in the fullness of time, became this:


Lesson humbly learned: plant thirsty veg in the winter, not spring.

PS: Very NB tip, especially with the disquieting news that the City intend calculating water usage when preparing accounts for the next while; you can get around nasty overbilling shocks by registering for e-services, reading your own meter (which we should all be doing anyway) and supplying the results to the City online, or by calling 0860103089, or emailing water.meterreading@capetown.gov.za. Some users are reporting a few hitches, but one of these routes should get your accurate reading to the City. Good luck!



Helen Moffett