1001 Water-and Waste-wise Ways: "Are you still doing this?"

Yes, I’m still doing this. That’s water collected from wells, springs and rain sources, not bottled water.

Yes, I’m still doing this. That’s water collected from wells, springs and rain sources, not bottled water.

The other day, my sister dropped in for a cuppa and found me pouring well water splashily into my washing machine. “Are you STILL doing this?” she asked. Likewise, a friend drove past as I was filling bottles at a local spring, and stopped to ask the same question. And then an email popped up from the Teabag Elf (remember her? Still my favourite tipster) letting me know she missed my “Green Hat” blogs. (Sorry, TE, I was ambushed by extra work over the “holidays” and then a PC crash got me behinder and behinder.)

Yes, I am still 99% off the water grid. I run the dishwasher once a month to keep everything sanitary, as I do a lot of bottling, pickling, and knitting of yoghurt. And I still brush my teeth in municipal water and go round giving the taps short bursts now and again, because I have an irrational fear of critters moving into unused pipes. But it’s hard to believe that this time last year, Capetonians were trampling each other in supermarkets to score and stockpile bottled water, or that foreign TV crews were showing up to film my garden pressure-sprayer in action as a camping shower. I went past the water shop in the mall yesterday, and all was quiet: this where folk queued for hours to buy (filtered) municipal water a year ago.

What happened? For starters, the mass hysteria evaporated [groan]. Many now seem to believe that the entire water crisis was fake news.

It was not. We dodged a catastrophe. A trawl through the back issues of this blog will explain how and why the incoming mortar shell exploded (fairly) harmlessly in the air just before touchdown. But as far as I can make out from the PR (which I distrust deeply, and with good reason) coming from the City of Cape Town, we all deserve a “rest”, to “recuperate” from the trauma of having had to cut our individual water consumption to 50 litres a day. (Pity future generations won’t get any “rest” from the environmental disasters we’ve created.)

This, I suspect, is because of the economic impact of water restrictions on tourism to our heart-stoppingly beautiful, heart-stoppingly unequal, and heart-stoppingly fragile city. The message is clear: dear visitors with hard currency, you may shower and frolic in hotel pools as much as you like, and we’ll agree to ignore impending Armageddon. With notable exceptions (well done, Vineyard Hotel), my experience of the few guesthouses I stayed in last year was of being told “Oh, the water shortage doesn’t affect us, there are no restrictions here!” Offers to bring my own towels and questions about whether there was a water-collecting bucket in the shower were met with polite incredulity. Even when the Cape’s biggest dam stood at only 13% capacity.

The CoCT learned some important lessons: that agriculture — generator of food (you know, that stuff we need to eat three times a day) and the major source of employment for rural communities — needs to be a priority in allocating water use. Legumes before lawns, spinach before swimming pools. But UCT’s Prof Lesley Green and other notables have observed that while the City’s systems work fairly well for normal conditions, there has been little or no planning for the increasingly catastrophic effects of climate change.

My waste research has rubbed my nose in the fact that even as the world starts to burn (look at the Western Cape a few short weeks ago, at California, Australia, Tasmania), we stick our fingers in our ears and sing “la-la-la” when it comes to the impact our pesky species (or rather, its staggering greed-need to consume and insane emphasis on profit before survival) is having on the planet. So devastating as I find the merry assumption that our water troubles are over, I am not surprised.

The truth is that we got decent rains last winter. Decent. Not great, but not bad either. And that saved our rapidly frying bacon — but only temporarily. As of now, we are gamblers. We’ll be fine in the short-term if there are average to good rainfalls this coming winter. And the next. And the next. But there is no longer any guarantee of this: the one thing all the climate predictions agree on is that the weather is becoming increasingly, well, unpredictable. In terms of rain falling from the skies, we now live in an era of Russian roulette.

So to revert to putting drinking water on our lawns and in our pools because the water crisis “is over” is like having a kind aunt (Mother Nature in our case) pay off our credit card bills — and responding by rushing out to shop all over again. And that is why I am bitterly opposed to the relaxation of local water-saving regulations.

I confess I am heartily sick of bucket-bathing, and the smell of grey water (although Pro-Bac and juniper oil help). But I simply can’t bring myself to pour drinking water down a toilet ever again. Plus I find I’ve changed certain habits: even in winter, I manage bathing/sponging in cold or tepid water just fine — even though I used to be the ultimate hot-water sybarite. Plus I love the sense of independence my water-harvesting gives me: cutting out the municipal middleman.

Meanwhile, there are small but heartening signs that keep me from slitting my wrists: huge rainwater tanks in a small local informal settlement; rain-tanks everywhere, in fact, especially at institutions like schools. Frogs and a resident water snake in a once-chlorinated pool (the owner of said eco-pool has mixed feelings about this, not helped by her friends congratulating her on her good fortune).

Water-lily in what was once an expensive, electricity- and chemical-consuming pool. Now a beautiful eco-pool filled with rainwater, and the family swim in it every day.

Water-lily in what was once an expensive, electricity- and chemical-consuming pool. Now a beautiful eco-pool filled with rainwater, and the family swim in it every day.

The way journo Miriam Mannak’s washing-up water keeps gifting her with tomato and chilli plants; and in spite of the sun scorching my poor veg patch, the huge feral killer butternuts generated by my compost heap.

Four different kinds of tomato and chillies. From pouring washing-up water into pot-plants.

Four different kinds of tomato and chillies. From pouring washing-up water into pot-plants.

Meanwhile, the waste research goes on, although I’m going to have to draw a line soon, or I’ll be writing One Million and One Waste-wise Ways: plus the ongoing anguish about whether reducing waste actually has a significant impact continues to split my head. Especially with data now showing that the single biggest planet-saving act by a middle-class person is to have no children (fifty per cent greater impact than anything else, including living off-grid and giving up car and plane travel). Pointing this out is not going to win popularity contests. So I give you a butternut the size of a baby instead.

And here’s one of my rogue butternuts.

And here’s one of my rogue butternuts.

Helen Moffett