1001 water-wise ways: Not a round-up, but a bit of a rant

Water everywhere. And wrecks.

Water everywhere. And wrecks.

I haven't written any water blogs this week, for two reasons. The first has been the final flurry to get my book on water (of which MUCH more news VERY SOON) off to the printers. Always a period of great excitement and manic stress. Second, I've been sitting with my hands over my mouth like the third monkey, trying very hard not to gibber with rage and dismay at Mmusi Mainane's pronouncement that we probably won't experience Day Zero this winter, and the subsequent reporting, which has ranged from sensible to spectacularly irresponsible ("Day Zero cancelled! It was all a hoax/plot/manipulation by the DA/ANC/Israelis/bottled water manufacturers/lizard people/[insert villain here] to sow panic/manipulate the electorate/install desalination plants/make loads of money/insert anal probes[insert conspiracy here]." This weekend's newspapers show more than one sensible and experienced journalist falling into these traps.

The purpose of this blog is to provide a platform for practical tips on living with less water, and after my initial roasting of the mayor for her stubborn refusal to acknowledge the enormity of the water crisis, and my general yelling at everyone I hold responsible, I've steered clear of of the toxic stew of politics. As I've said before, blame for the mishandling of the crisis (certainly from a PR point of view) is a terrible waste of energy. However, the worse-than-useless water-crisis PR we've been seeing sometimes entwines with irresponsible media reporting, social media pours on the gasoline, and the next thing, there's a misinformation wildfire galloping across our screens.

I looked carefully at what Maimane said, and in fact, it was unremarkable: no different from what every single sensible person and water pundit has been saying for the last month: IF we go on saving every drop of water left in our dams, and IF we get decent rains (let me remind everyone we have no control whatsoever over this huge great big IF): then (and only then), we might not have to face Day Zero this winter.

OK, then. Five minutes later, social media was awash with tales of the cancellation of Day Zero, cries of what ninnies we'd been to buy tanks and bottled water, how we'd been getting into a lather over nothing, loud cheers because we could all go back to hot baths and watering our lawns, how we'd been lied to from the beginning. (Here's a fair account of the blowback.)

How did we get here from Maimane's temperate and accurate statement? There was only one small problem: the fact that he said anything AT ALL.

Frankly, I do not want to hear one more word, from one single politician with an eye on the forthcoming elections, about the water crisis. Just shut up. All of you, successive administration after administration, let us down; you knew this was coming and you did pathetically little to avert it other than shutting your eyes, crossing your fingers and chanting rhetoric. IMO, you have forfeited the right to speak. You have absolutely no business pontificating about what might or might not happen, and if you don't live in this city, don't congratulate us on how we're doing -- go check on the status of your local reservoirs and the water-wasting habits of your own constituents. You'll be facing your own Day Zero soon enough.

And (this is for ALL politicians): stop using a national disaster to score points. It's not just opportunistic, it makes you look stupid. I'm not going to explain why claims that this is All A Plot are ridiculous. (Apart from anything else, HOW? Did the DA or whoever fiendishly conspire with aliens to suck the contents of the Cape dams up into vast spaceships, which are now loitering round the dark side of the moon until Nefarious Purposes Have Been Achieved? And then they'll kindly return our water and we can all leap into jacuzzis again?) John Maytham debunks this kind of thinking very well here, but this showcases the irresponsibility of the language about Day Zero.

This leads to the thorny topic of media irresponsibility: News24 provided a sober report: we MAY avoid Day Zero, IF and IF. But within minutes, subs across the country were racing to splash headlines about NO MORE DAY ZERO ("Water panic over for now"; "How Cape Town avoided Day Zero" [???], etc) all over the show. Plummeting national standards of reporting and subbing as the media is eaten from the inside out are a subject for another day, but I take exception to the irresponsibility of reporting inaccurately on a topic this sensitive and critical; also one where people veer from panic to complacency with few stops in between. We're all fed up with the smell of grey water, so don't give us the false impression that it's safe to go back to casting drinking water down our toilets.

Both the City's PR campaigners and the media have used the language of exceptionalism -- phrases like a "hundred-year drought" and "unprecedented" have been tossed about -- and there is this touching faith that the rains will come along and save us all, and everything will go back to normal.

People: WE BROKE THE WEATHER. It is going to take decades, if ever, to fix it. Climate change is real and it is here. Will it rain this winter? We. Don't. Know. Half an hour on Google confirms this: nobody knows, none of the meteorologists and weather forecasters and scientists. (This link, from the SA Weather Service and the Dept of Environmental Affairs, should get an award for sheer uselessness.) What we DO know is that rain needs to fall not just in huge quantities, but in the catchment areas for the dams, and it needs to be the right sort of rain: soft, soaking, continuous, so that it replenishes rivers and groundwater instead of dashing off the miles of concrete and tar and paving and decking we've slapped all over the sponge that is the earth, down stormwater drains, and out to sea.

Regardless of what the politricksters and the City's PR mavens may say (I don't think I'd believe a word out of their mouths by now, not even "hello"), the situation is Serious. Sure, we may dodge Day Zero this winter. But where are we going to be next January? Or the summer after that? And the next one? And more South African cities are going to face water scarcity, and soon (Jozi, having been saved by the calvary aka the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme a little while back, is slurping through their extra water at a frightening rate).

But let's stress once again: there is no need to panic. If nothing else, we've learned first exactly how much water we need each day; and once over the shock of that, we've realised how little that amount actually is. Waterwise living is going to be part of our shared future; already experienced by millions reliant on standpipes, wells and rivers, it's going to be taught in schools, practiced by businesses, legislated properly (OK politicians, now THERE'S something useful you can do -- apparently Cape Town's water bylaws are indeed being as rapidly amended as is consistent with due process). What we won't be able to go back to is our previous helpless reliance on local government and our luxurious use of water. And a little independence and the ability to be water-thrifty are great things to carry into our future.

Helen Moffett