1001 water-wise ways: Everything AND the kitchen sink
This beautiful watery painting, "Mbashe Lagoon", is by Cape Town artist  Angela Briggs . Posted here with permission -- thank you!

This beautiful watery painting, "Mbashe Lagoon", is by Cape Town artist Angela Briggs. Posted here with permission -- thank you!

Right, a literary festival, several deadlines and many blessed glorious millilitres of rain later, and I'm diving into watery matters again. One slight hitch is that my camera has evaporated, and I take most of the pics for my blog myself. Ah well.

By now, the "tip jar" is brimming (I know, I know, I can't help myself). From "water-saving things couples can do together" to the inner and under-workings of sewage systems on estates (fascinating if a bit shudder-making), from the pesky business of handling grey water to "planting the rain", they keep coming.

But first an NB announcement for Capetonians; if you're within striking distance of Kalk Bay Books next Thursday, we're launching 101 Water Wise Ways (yes, the water book you all helped create -- your name might be in the Acknowledgements! Read an extract here.) The time is at 6 for 6.30pm,  Leopard's Leap is kindly donating the wine, and the passionate, clever and entertaining Leonie Joubert, journalist and green Amazon of note, will be in conversation with me. Come say hi!

Now, those tips: my dear friend and fellow author Paige (who helped me edit this book, and who is a dating columnist, among other things) was asked about romantic water-saving tips, and we came up a brilliant idea: for a first date, visit a spring to harvest water together. No outfit pressure (jeans and takkies are de rigeur), chatty people all around, the water topic is a great ice-breaker (oh c'mon, how was I going to avoid that one?), and if your would-be date thinks it's a CRAZY idea, do you really want to go out with them? Then you can go off for a drink/coffee/dinner with the glow that comes from participation in the public good, and several litres of water to boot.

From romance to sewage: the environmental group for the estate I live on has put together a detailed description of exactly how our "internal" pipes connect up to the municipal system -- most middle-class estates have similar systems. I know we're all letting our yellow mellow and using grey water for flushing, but this brought it home to me again: don't let paper clog up your toilet -- rather go Greek and chuck pee paper in a little sanitary bin. Even if paper doesn't block YOUR loo, it can create major headaches just a few metres down the line, as it were. Also: we need to flush more often, if possible, than once a day. If you're not producing enough greywater (remember the No 1 rule is not to use drinking water to flush), then harvest rainwater specifically for this purpose, even if it's just a bucket on the balcony.

And is anyone else a bit fed-up with the smell of greywater after it's been standing around a few days? I have two problems: the water that empties out the washing-machine and which is saved for flushing; and bath/shower water after it's been hanging about a bit. After a bit of experimentation, I find that a few good shakes of tea-tree oil into the water helps a lot. What are your solutions?

And speaking of greywater, if you have a family, or are elderly, one Retief Krige has come up with an extremely nifty device to help you channel grey water directly into your toilet cistern. It's a little wrap-around reservoir you can attach to any kind of cistern and remove again easily -- no plumber or plumbing tinkering required. Retief kindly offered to send me one to test, but I was already sufficiently impressed by the You Tube videos showing how to install it and how it works -- I imagine it would be really helpful for children or anyone with arthritic hands, or who might battle with buckets and watering cans. Also great for guesthouses and gyms -- at my book festival, it was a bit of a mission hauling my bucket from the guesthouse shower to the loo and then disassembling their cistern! If anyone has tried this product (the Waterloo Greywater Bank), let me know how it works for you.

And I know we're not out the woods, very far from it, but hasn't the recent rain been glorious? I'm even pleased to see weeds returning to the no longer desertified garden (how to tell when a drought is really, really bad: even the weeds die). Am I the only one who gets the most enormous kick out of doing the washing up in rainwater? And there: I just dragged in the kitchen sink.

Water book banner.jpg



Helen Moffett
1001 water-wise ways: some snippets and a poem
Oasis in the heart of the city: Green Point Park.

Oasis in the heart of the city: Green Point Park.

Lots of water information and advice piling up, but a lot of it is Serious and takes Proper Study. (This week's lesson: learning about swales -- shallow depressions that we can create to sponge up rainwater. More soon!) I'm totting up many useful links with water-wise and green information and tips that I'll be posting in the next little while; some of these are scary, some necessary, some are just plain good news. For example, in 101 Water Wise Ways, I talk about composting as an aid to water-saving -- and I just heard that the City of Cape Town is giving away free compost bins, a boon for homes with small or no gardens: check how to get yours here.

The rain that's been falling is such a relief that it's hard to stay on top of all the statistics and figures, especially the water projections for the future, but my best go-to site is Paarl-based (which is well situated in terms of where rainwater actually needs to land -- in the huge Boland dams that supply most of the city's water). Bookmark this site and read it regularly: it gives reliable figures, and explains the good news and the bad news; it also explains the impact of water needed for agriculture, which (let me get up on my soapbox and repeat) is NOT a luxury: we all need to eat, and nearly all food starts in a farmer's field.

The graphs take a bit of puzzling over, but are very helpful, if a bit scary: one thing I like is that they clearly show how our water-saving habits are currently saving our bacon. We're now down to 505 million litres per day (yay us, apparently no other modern city has managed to go so low per citizen per day), but we still need to get down to 450 m/l/per day if we're going to survive next summer. So don't let the sound of rain of the roof lull you into relaxing your guard: we still need to be saving every drop.

Meanwhile I am compiling green tips that slot alongside water-frugal habits, and believe me, there are thousands of them. Alas, I have also been reading that small band of environmental scientists who believe we're past the point of no return for the planet. This renders me very blue (as opposed to green -- OK, terrible joke), but it's a real concern, as this article and many like it show: can we actually make a difference at this point?

I think the magnificent way many citizens of Cape Town have curbed their water consumption is one answer to that question. And then my friend Liesl posted a poem, by the American poet, farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry, that made me breathe a little easier. Because it speaks to that tiny attitudinal shift that can open us up, so that we connect with our world on a local and individual level. To paraphrase the central message of most faiths (and many songwriters): love is still the answer, even to the environmental crisis. Here's the poem.

Love This Miraculous World

Our understandable wish
to preserve the planet
must somehow be
to the scale of our
Love is never abstract.
It does not adhere
to the universe
or the planet
or the nation
or the institution
or the profession,
but to the singular
sparrows of the street,
the lilies of the field,
“the least of these
my brethren.”
Love this
miraculous world
that we did not make,
that is a gift to us.

- Wendell Berry

Wildflower meadows and trees: medicine for the planet. Stourhead, UK, in summer.

Wildflower meadows and trees: medicine for the planet. Stourhead, UK, in summer.

Helen Moffett
1001 water-wise ways: celebrating rain
Water = peace.

Water = peace.

I don't think I've ever heard this many expressions of relief and gratitude: in the last week, the greater Cape Town area has seen good rains. We'll never take these for granted again: unless you're a hermit, you'll have seen that extraordinary video clip of the rain coursing down a bone-dry riverbed near Worcester, and everyone who has rain tanks is purring and posting pics of them online with captions "FULL AT LAST!"

At the same time, I've been getting some interesting new tips, and doing a lot of reading -- but most of these involve sewage and waste water recycling, and while they're interesting, they're not really what I'm in the mood for right now (but I shall SOON reveal the True Stories about what happens when we flush while living on an estate -- You Won't Believe What Happens Next).

Instead I'd like to celebrate the rain. Also to utter my usual Cassandra-like warnings: we may all be dancing on the spot, with three whole months of winter still to come, but the blessed rain has barely touched sides. It's had almost no effect on the bigger dams (which supply over half our water) whatsoever; and even if it rains every week for the entire winter, we'd still have to go a long way to replenish our water supplies to the point of relaxing our vigilance. So: we all need to keep on saving and harvesting water.

But there's no doubt that the scent of rain and soaked soil and vegetation are cheering us all immensely, along with the fuzz of green that is Nature's immediate and miraculous response. So let's relax and look at something beautiful to celebrate, at the very least, the end of one of the longest and hardest summers Cape Town has ever seen.

"Echo Stream 2" by Simon Sephton.

"Echo Stream 2" by Simon Sephton.

This is one of Simon Sephton's extraordinary photographs of water. He specialises in what I think of as portraits of water, which he crops and enlarges to form beautiful images that look like pieces of abstract art -- and yet the sense of liquid and flow remains. He takes pictures of water in its "natural" context, so often rocks of the Table Mountain chain, river pebbles, floating foliage, and the tracery of reflected branches weave into his images.

Here, take a look:

"Beyond Blue" by Simon Sephton. Taken right here in Silvermine Nature Reserve.

"Beyond Blue" by Simon Sephton. Taken right here in Silvermine Nature Reserve.

This tells you why he's so passionate about photographing water: https://www.simonsephton.com/

Here's one I loved so much, I bought a print:

Simon my own pic.JPG

And I can't resist posting one more:

"Otter gold" by Simon Sephton.

"Otter gold" by Simon Sephton.

So thank you, Simon, for giving us weary water warriors and worriers something wonderful to rest our eyes on, and a fresh way of really looking at something we all used to take for granted.

Helen Moffett
1001 water-wise ways: what's next?
We can't quite see around the next bend...

We can't quite see around the next bend...

It's Earth Day, and I want to write about a very uncomfortable emotion: despair. My social media feeds are full of chirpy advice: "Plant more trees for Earth Day! Resolve to recycle!" and gloomy truths: "Recycling has little impact: produce less stuff in the first place. Capitalism is broken."

After the great Water Panic, came the Great Water Silence, but now we're getting back into the swim (sorry) of this water thing, and the tips are trickling (really sorry) back in again. Some of us are (rightfully) proud of how well we've done in cutting back our water usage (to levels way below those set for water-saving in drought-stricken California, for instance); some of us (especially on research teams and working for green NPOs) are a bit exasperated with the arrival of international scientists and journalists all prodding and taking notes on how we're managing to file away for their future reference.

What has this got to do with despair? The truth is that many of us have realised this truly is the new normal: we are never going back to assuming that water will always come out a tap whenever we want it to. I see little changes everywhere -- things like restaurants providing "pee paper bins": we've gotten quite robust, even blase about such things.


But what else can we do? And whispering at the back of our minds is the reality that the water crisis (which will slowly spread around the world, and which is already an ongoing issue for arid countries and regions) is embedded in a much bigger crisis -- the way we've taken our only home and habitation and rendered it almost unfit for use.

I sometimes feel my brain splitting as I swing between a sense of self-reliance and confidence in my water harvesting routines, the feeling that we can definitely handle this water shortage, and utter horror at the broader context: the fact that we've broken the weather and choked the oceans and wiped out thousands upon thousands of species that were once woven into the vast tapestry of buzzing, swarming, fecund life that sustains us all.

The water crisis has made us aware -- often uncomfortably -- of the fact that we've kicked our poor planet almost to pieces. We're no longer flushing with drinking water or watering lawns: do we have to consider the bigger picture too? Climate change (which some scientists say should be called "climate catastrophe"), pollution, overconsumption and all the other things that make me want to stick my head under a pillow? It's complex and frightening, if not downright terrifying, and we feel helpless in the face of it. (Here's a very good summary by Wits academic Vishwas Satgar of what's going on, and it's super-scary -- although there's hope at the end.)

But it's not just hopelessness we feel: increasingly, there's a creeping grief sneaking up on us, and one that's apparently incurable: sorrow for the loss  and destruction of elements of our home planet and our immediate environment even as we live in it, to which I'd add tremendous anxiety about what threatening changes lie in the immediate future. Here's an excellent article on the phenomenon of "ecological grief" for those who wrestle with such feelings.

But all this serious stuff carries with it the risk that our despair and sorrow (if we can even allow ourselves to feel these uncomfy emotions) can render us immobile. And that's the most disastrous outcome of all.

It's corny, but true: think globally, act locally. And there's so much we can do at the local level. Look around for win-win solutions: keep up the recycling, even if it isn't a perfect solution, because it supplies jobs and occupation to marginal and vulnerable people. Declutter your home and donate your furniture and clothes to shelters for battered women and children. Plant spekbooms -- lots of them -- because trees (especially these ones) DO soak up carbon from the air; and keep up the composting because soil CAN grab onto carbon (and the richer the soil, the more effectively it will hold and filter water).

So while I'll continue to post water-wise suggestions, I'm hoping to include other green tips you might like to send along, to make our water-savvy ways part of an overall strategy to tread more lightly on the earth. And because this is such a daunting topic, I want to post more beautiful photos (by professional and truly gifted friends) of water, inspiring links on liquid issues, maybe even a poem or two. To remind us that this is an extraordinary world, and that we can do extraordinary things to nurture and protect it. And this starts with stopping for a moment to appreciate it.




Helen Moffett
1001 water-wise ways: Spring stories

I'm at a bit of a crossroads with this water blog. The tips have dried up, as water-savviness has become second nature, and we have our water-saving and harvesting routines down pat. (I sincerely HOPE this is the case.) My book, 101 Water Wise Ways, which throws all the best advice you've given me between two covers, is out in the wild. It's even been spotted in my favourite book shop, The Book Lounge in Roeland Street, Cape Town.

I love that my water book -- seen here at the Book Lounge -- is surrounded by poetry and art. And am still delighted at the simple loveliness of the cover. So thrilled with Bookstorm's high-quality production.

I love that my water book -- seen here at the Book Lounge -- is surrounded by poetry and art. And am still delighted at the simple loveliness of the cover. So thrilled with Bookstorm's high-quality production.

(Just in case you're still looking for ways to survive and thrive on less water, you can get a copy here -- at a very nice price, I see.)

So what next? Especially, as a friend said gloomily, "What we need now is 101 Ways to Make It Rain." So much depends on that rain, and whether it will arrive, and in the quantities in which we need it. Unlike Gauteng, we have no Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme to gallop to the rescue. But it's no good panicking about events over which we have no control -- all we can do now is wait.

In the meantime, I want to keep listening to people's water stories, and one benefit of collecting from springs is getting to do exactly that. Today I visited, for the first time, the spring at St James -- I needed to do laundry, and for that I like to harvest water that is clean, but not safe to drink.

An hour and a half later, I staggered away with my 20 litres of water, feeling like I'd been a bit player in a soap opera for the afternoon. There is so much about race, gender and class -- and also human connection -- that goes on at springs, it's fascinating and humbling and frustrating, all at once.

So the dilemma was this. The queue was short when I arrived: only nine people ahead of me. Directly in front of me were two women -- one with only two empty bottles, another with three small children -- maybe eight, six and four in age -- and five 5-litre bottles. There were a few men, a few 25-litre containers. The queue was moving along slowly -- there are only two outlet pipes, and they do not gush, they trickle. Then a couple stepped up. They filled several 25-litre containers, and over eighty 5-litre containers. They had a huge 4X4, and every time we thought they'd finished, they'd dash over to it and drag another ten containers out of its depths. Look, they worked hard and fast, given that they were not young -- but it was pretty galling nonetheless.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were keeping the smallies out the traffic, which whisks by only feet from the springs. The littlest one had a bottle, which he kept dropping and then chasing as it rolled into the road, and his mother, burdened with containers and two other kids, couldn't always grab him in time.

OK, so the question is: when does one say something? Especially when yours is the only white face in the queue? I shut up for a long while: I was enjoying the chat, and there are worse ways to spend a mild early-autumn afternoon than standing by the False Bay coast, looking at the changing light on the waves and the cloud shadows on the mountains. But I felt for the two women ahead of me, and especially for those tiny kids. So when 4X4 Couple took over both pipes, I had a few words to say, and they relinquished the slower-running outlet to the mum with children.

Photo credit: Ken Barris, used with permission. This wasn't the exact view I was enjoying at the spring, but close enough. And that's certainly what the clouds looked like.

Photo credit: Ken Barris, used with permission. This wasn't the exact view I was enjoying at the spring, but close enough. And that's certainly what the clouds looked like.

I'd love to know what that mother's story was: the way her oldest boy helped her made me think this was a daily ritual. They had no car: once their five containers were filled (and the littlest's bottle as well), the two older kids each hefted a container (the little girl was dwarfed by hers), the mother took the remaining three, and off they trudged in the direction of Kalk Bay. Was that their water for the evening? Drinking, cooking and washing?

Likewise the young woman who had waited an hour and a half, texting on her phone, to fill two 5-litre containers. Then she hopped on a taxi heading towards Masiphumelele. Was that her daily ration? Does she go to the spring every day after work?

Meanwhile, the gentleman alongside me was happy to tell me his story: he was retired, but his wife still worked, so he had taken over the family laundry. He had four 25-litre containers, and he explained that each load of washing took two containers. Once a week, he fetched water from this spring and took it home to wash his family's clothes.

The thing that's worth remembering: rain could pour from the skies, the dams could fill up, but for some of the people I saw today, nothing will change. They will continue the hard work of hand-hauling water day in, day out, year in, year out, because it's the only option available to them. And that is sobering indeed.

I took a photo, but I couldn't get everyone's names (the roar of the traffic and the running water made it hard for me to hear). However, the individuals in this pic were enthusiastic about appearing in a blog -- or maybe they were just being kind and indulging me.

Water-collectors at the St James spring. Long waits, but much patience and courtesy. Pic taken with permission (active encouragement, in fact).

Water-collectors at the St James spring. Long waits, but much patience and courtesy. Pic taken with permission (active encouragement, in fact).

My spring suggestions, if I was the boss of the world: solo parents with small children should get a priority pass at springs, especially if there's more than one outlet: a kind of speed queue. The traffic department should, for the love of all that is sane, put traffic cones or SOME sort of calming device alongside this and other springs -- some of the trucks that whizzed past practically jolted the fillings out my head. It amazes me that there hasn't been a nasty accident (yet) that I know of. And let's apply what I think of as the Newlands rule: you can take as much water as you like -- but no more than 25 litres at a time. After that, you go to the back of the queue and start again.

Oh yes, my laundry! Once I got home to my middle-class machine, it went like clockwork. I don't even bother with water-saving programs. I know exactly how much harvested water to pour in when: 18 litres at the start, another 18 the second the rinse cycle starts, 8 for the spin cycle, and boom, a perfect wash sans municipal water. And all the grey water gets saved for flushing.

Helen Moffett