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.


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