1001 water-wise ways: Enough with the magical thinking
Another of Ken Barris's extraordinary shots of water -- taken in Kirstenbosch after the rain.

Another of Ken Barris's extraordinary shots of water -- taken in Kirstenbosch after the rain.

The life-giving, life-saving rain -- exactly the right kind -- soft, steady, soaking -- is falling in abundance from the skies, once parched parts of the Western Cape are verdantly green, the Big Six dams are standing at 42% capacity, with the grand-daddy of them all, Theewaterskloof, almost nudging 30% (remember, this serves over half of Cape Town, a long way to go still) -- so here come the silly headlines again. For instance, "Cape's water crisis comes to a miraculous end" -- or so says the CEO of Cullinan Holdings in a piece that begins "A miraculous increase in dam levels in one month with improved winter rains and a 50% savings in daily water usage in the Western Cape effectively sees the end of the [sic] Cape Town’s severe drought."

Um, no. (I'll explain below.)

But far more irresponsible is the CoCT's announcement of no Day Zero for 2019, their eye squarely on the tourism market (badly hit early this year). Their reporting is sensible enough if you look closely; IF we go on getting the amount of rain seen in the last month for both July and August, and IF we go on using only 50 litres per person per day, we will get through next summer without running out of water. But this relies on two huge IFs, and leaves out a crucial piece of the puzzle -- the water needed from our dams for agriculture at the beginning of October. We don't even have that to spare yet, and it's only three months away.

The first IF: Our assumption that because we've had a blissfully rainy month, we're due for more of the same over the rest of the winter. Yet the synoptic charts don't show anything special -- if anything, the ever-reliable Tom Brown's graphs (puzzling over these is my equivalent of doing cryptic crosswords) show that we're likely to end this winter with average rainfall only. (You have bookmarked his weekly report, haven't you?)

A few months ago, a bloke at a party insisted that rain would indeed fall and solve all our problems. We pressed him: how did he know? We were told, in "is-the-Pope-Catholic" tones, "Because the Western Cape is a winter rainfall area." This, good people, is textbook magical thinking. The reality (and my sources tell me the City knows this) is that we need four (not my original calculation of three) winters of good rainfall to put us back on safe footing. Let's do a really crude calculation, one that gives us three months of winter rainfall a year. Multiply that by 4 years, and we get 12 months in which we need it to rain as heavily as it's done this month. This is like rolling the dice, coming up with six, and assuming that the next eleven times it rolls, it's going to come up six again.

The second IF is actually a good thing, because (unlike the weather) this is something WE can control: our water consumption. However, irresponsible reporting along the "Water crisis is over, huzzah huzzah" lines can have disastrous behavioral effects. I've already spotted that the city's weekly consumption is creeping back up -- and remember, to get through next summer unscathed, we need to get that figure (somewhere around 530 million cubic litres per day) down to 450. So the City is giving its citizens an awkwardly mixed message: "Set off the fireworks, the drought is broken, no more Day Zero -- but you all still need to keep up the most strenuous and stringent water restrictions known to any urban community in the 21st century."

And then there's the red-headed stepchild in the room: agriculture. The CoCT makes no mention of the fact that in a matter of months, we need to divert a VAST chunk of municipal water towards maintaining food security. To get there, our dams need to be at least 60% full by Oct, AND we have to go on saving water at our current unprecedented rates.

There is a lot of good news: as Tom Brown says, "More water stored in [the last] eight weeks than over the entire winter last year." And parts of the breadbasket West coast area are getting excellent rainfall, and their farmers are all sighing in relief.

But I've realised we don't have entirely logical responses to the wet stuff when it comes tumbling down: we rejoice (good), we relax (not so wise), and we believe everything is back to normal (disastrous). "The weather isn't broken after all! This was just a long, bad drought, but it's over now."

I've done a little digging and have been shocked at how little I know about how rain actually works to break a drought. But there are four main things we need to understand, if we're not to find ourselves believing in the water equivalent of the Tooth Fairy.

First, it's no good rain just sommer falling. To end up in our dams, it needs to fall in the right sort of catchment area. Erosion, alien vegetation (whether infestations of alien plants or commercial plantations), hard surfacing, improper maintenance of dams and many other factors shape whether water runs away to sea, is gobbled up by greedy interloper plants, or causes flooding, instead of filling underground aquifers and dams.

Dams are filled via catchment areas and drainage basins: to see how this works, put out a bucket the next time it rains. It will fill up extremely slowly, if at all. Put it under any kind of device that funnels or channels water (a gutter downpipe, for e.g.,) and it will fill in minutes. Dams are the same: they need a network of streams and rivers running into them, and if we disrupt or choke these with urban development or erode and drain them with unwise agricultural practices, it's the same as having clogged or broken gutters. That water ain't gonna land in your bucket. For those who've seen that beautiful video of a cloudburst over a dam, it's the run-off from the adjacent mountains that will replenish that dam, not the rain falling into it.

Second: after a drought, especially a severe one, the earth itself is parched. There is a vast, poorly understood system of underground water storage beneath us, overlaid by another resource we take for granted -- soil, which also holds water. These take a hammering in drought, and are further hammered by those fallback positions of the middle classes during drought: wells and boreholes. Rain needs to soak -- and soak and soak and soak -- into the soil, and then slowly start replenishing underground water sources. And all that needs to happen before we can say "the drought has broken." (This video from Perth makes it crystal clear how it works -- basically, imagine dripping water onto a bone-dry sponge as opposed to a damp sponge.)

Third, this presupposes the water actually penetrating the soil: in cities (like Cape Town), water engineering has historically focused on getting rain that falls away from roads and hard surfaces as fast as possible, down storm water drains, and out to sea. So we can have excellent rains, but if they're pouring down onto tarmac, concrete, pavers, stone and decking, they're not going to alleviate drought conditions in a hurry.

Fourth, the way that rain itself arrives is critical. One of the most disturbing things about climate change is that wet weather is increasingly arriving in the form of violent, sudden storms. (Remember the Cape storms that ripped away roofs and trees, created utter misery in townships, and which were preceded by berg winds that roasted the Garden Route and burned parts of Knysna, only a year ago? That.) What Mediterranean winter rainfall has meant historically is long spells of soft, soaking rain, days and days of it, and that's what Cape Town's water infrastructure banks on. What we've seen more of in recent years is sudden spectacular downpours -- most of which water is lost via run-off drains, not even hanging around long enough to soak the soil, but creating flooding havoc en route to the sea.

In other words: 50 mm of rain that falls suddenly, fast and heavily, outside of an intact catchment area and onto hard surfacing or dried-out soil is NOT the same as 50 mm that falls gently, over hours, onto an afromontane area with multiple intact streams that slope down to a properly maintained dam. Almost all of the first 50 mm will be lost; much of the second will be stored.

One more aspect of magical thinking about rain and dams: the latter are like current accounts. We draw on them all the time. But we forget this: we think of them as piggy-banks that we'll crack open when we need to. But all of them are actually sinks with open drain-holes. Remember that the Cape dams were full to bursting only a few years ago -- and yet even then, we knew we were facing a looming water crisis.

The good news: we can control, to some degree, the size of those open drains. We can shrink the water that runs out to a trickle. So weird as it seems to be saving water as it falls and falls from the skies, that's STILL what's needed most.

And here's another of Ken Barris's marvellous photos to inspire you.

Ken Barris pic puddle.jpg
Helen Moffett
1001 water-wise ways: A mixed bag
I swear this pincushion is enjoying the rain. This beautiful pic is courtesy of journalist Miriam Mannak.

I swear this pincushion is enjoying the rain. This beautiful pic is courtesy of journalist Miriam Mannak.

It's the winter solstice! Which means we are exactly half-way through winter. To celebrate, here's another pick-'n-mix scoop of tips, which are still coming my way, thanks to you all. But first: with all this glorious, wonderful, heavenly rain, SURELY we can relax a bit? Alas, no. It looks good (isn't all the green great?); it sounds good; and the dams are 40% full! Well, in theory. The truth is a bit more complex than that. Theewaterskloof Dam (which supplies over half of Cape Town's water) is at 27% of capacity, and that's a long, long way away from 100%. But once again, I leave it to the truly heroic Tom Brown to explain things in his reliable regular water post. Read it all, and read it carefully, but the bottom line is that it needs to rain heavily all through July and August if (1) agriculture is going to get the allotment of water it needs in spring; and (2) the city is going to squeak through summer (along with the extra challenges of the season -- tourist influx, evaporation, etc). Sadly, here's why we can't break out the marching bands: "No large weather systems are currently predicted to strike the Cape during July and August."

But now for some tips.

* Possibly my most middle-class tip ever, and also possibly TMI, but as I'm not so much bucket-bathing on cold nights as swiftly swiping with a damp cloth, I've had my underarm hair professionally removed via laser. It was MUCH cheaper and quicker than I'd imagined, and not even that uncomfortable. It has the double green benefit that I'll never have to use disposable razors again -- a niggling source of plastic guilt and worry about whether the blades pose dangers in landfills.

* From the pits to the pits: gardeners, who is digging swales? One problem now that lawns have gone bald or been consigned to history is that some folk are paving over areas that used to be turf. Remember, the new principle is to increase every possible way of retaining water that falls from the sky, including using the earth as a sponge to soak it up. Here's a very useful piece by Kevin Winter of UCT's Future Water Institute that explains how you can adapt your patch of former lawn and harvest stormwater, and all the benefits that can result. 

A friend suggested I post more tips for flat and townhouse dwellers, and here I have not so much a tip as a Cautionary Tale: you might have spotted a bit of online frothing about the fact that according to new City by-laws, individual water meters are being installed in flats. A friend’s experience shows why this is a Very Good Idea: her block had a perennial spring emerging from under it and running out to sea (the residents harvested this, so not all was lost).  A plumber came to install water meters and found that the source of the "spring" was SOMEONE'S LEAKING GEYSER. So get active and even nosy: ask your agents, the body corporate or even the CoCT what the total water bill is for your block; if it’s high, press for plumbers or meter installers to double-check for leaks.

And, Andie Miller reminds me, if your toilet is still connected to the municipal supply, remember to check it for leaking -- ten minutes after flushing, hold a piece of toilet paper to the back of the bowl; if it gets wet, then you have a drip -- call a plumber asap.

Meanwhile, water-saving ways seem to have become engrained in public life, even as the rain pours down. I was really impressed when attending the Jewish Literary Festival in Gardens last weekend; I found the toilets stocked with buckets of harvested water, along with the following instructions:

Applause, applause!

Applause, applause!

Another friend went up Table Mountain, and found this sign in the cable station toilet:

Thanks to Helen Martin for taking and sharing the pic.

Thanks to Helen Martin for taking and sharing the pic.

This is great, not just in terms of water saving, but in terms of education and inspiration. Hundreds of thousands of visitors and tourists will see the above sign, for instance, and take the message home.

Helen Moffett
1001 water-wise ways: Getting to know and love your raintank

Hasn't the rain been glorious? I feel emotional every time people share videos or pictures of waterfalls or streams and dams filling up. This weekend, I had to give a talk to visiting American students about the water crisis, and it was hard to be convincing about the urgency of the issue when everything was green and fresh-smelling, and rainwater was burbling merrily into the hotel pool.

All this rain means that those who installed rainwater tanks ahead of the coming winter now have brimful tanks. My sister literally cuddles hers. I am wildly envious, as the tanks delivered to our village three months ago haven't yet been installed at the house I rent, so I am still harvesting rain the slow, cold and wet way. Climbing into a bath of heated rainwater is still one of my favourite things, though.

Meanwhile, those with tanks are getting to know their quirks: you can't put them any old where -- they have to have firm foundations, the gutters have to be cleared before they can be hooked up -- and can or can't you drink the water?

I drink my rainwater if it's clear -- the first few buckets from the gutters  sometimes look a bit like chardonnay; if it's stood in a container until the particles from my roof tiles have settled at the bottom and I can pour from the top; and if I boil it first. Zero problems so far. But for screamingly obvious reasons I can't recommend this. It might be prudent to treat your rainwater tank as a source of water for everything except drinking. (Remember, it depends on the state of your gutters and the materials used for your roofing: my octogenarian parents drink their rainwater with nary a hiccup.)

First, a problem encountered by many: your gorgeous tank is full to overflowing: now what? All this water is still in a tank. Meanwhile, you have dishes to wash, clothes to launder, toilets to flush. So much depends on the layout of your house and immediate surrounds, your budget, your back muscles, and the availability of an excellent plumber or electrician. If your tank is close to where the indoor bathroom or kitchen is, you're in luck. A friend has hooked his tank (outside the kitchen) up so that it services his washing-machine, downstairs toilet, sink and dishwasher via a pressure pump.

But many are simply taking the water indoors via bucket. And for the elderly and infirm, this can be a problem, especially if you need to get water to an upstairs bathroom. (I've written here about avoiding injury in the water-warrior fray.) My friend Robin posted this ingenious solution.

First, take your brimming tank (in fact, the overflow "bin"):

A familiar sight in Cape Town suburbs these days: raintank and repurposed wheelie garbage bin for overflow. Extra points for netting and creepers.

A familiar sight in Cape Town suburbs these days: raintank and repurposed wheelie garbage bin for overflow. Extra points for netting and creepers.

Next, IF you have an electric drill, get yourself this nifty little gadget: an electric drill pump. One hardware chain has it at R410. Good birthday present.

The pic in orange explains all.

The pic in orange explains all.

Now dig out your hosepipes, and hook everything up. CAUTION! ACHTUNG! Electricity and water are not friends. Please proceed with care, and if your hands are weak or trembly, get someone with unknotted and steady hands to do this for you. Note that you can also do this with a cordless drill.

robin water 3.jpg

Et voila, you should now be able to fill up your bath/washing machine/sinks/bathroom buckets painlessly. My friend said it took ten minutes of running the pump/drill to get his bath full:

robin water 4.jpg

And there you have it. Let me know if this works for you, or if you have refinements. And now, to celebrate the literally heavenly rain of this week, here's an amazing waterfall pic by journalist and intrepid mountain hiker, Miriam Mannak. Enjoy.

Miriam waterfall 4.jpg

Many thanks to Miriam, and to Robin Palmer for the pics and explanations above.

Helen Moffett
1001 water-wise ways: Cape Town, take a bow
Water book banner.jpg

Dear middle-class Capetonians,

I'm poring over the latest dam reports, provided by the reliable ShowMePaarl website (if you haven't bookmarked this site as a source for clear, intelligent and truthful reporting on our water situation, do it now). It takes me a while to figure out the pleasingly complex graphs, but they're carefully explained, and right now, while it's not good news yet, I am SO proud of us.

I was telling friends how chuffed I was to see the drop in household water use, and everyone shrieked "Don't write a blog about how well we're doing, we'll relax and go back to taking twenty-minute showers!" Ha. I don't think so -- we're not that dim. I think many, maybe even most former water guzzlers understand that our situation remains grave, and that it's not going to be resolved any time soon, no matter how much rain falls this winter.

The graphs in the dam report above make it clear that while the wonderful rains (falling in the catchment areas, praise be) are helping (we're at just over 23% of storage capacity at the moment, slightly up from this time last year), what is really making the difference is our water-saving behaviour. It's not the little bit of extra water that's helping so much: it's how much less we're using of the little water we do have. Scroll down to the graph in the report with all the red, yellow and blue. That blue swathe is the impact of our water-frugal behaviour. Impressive, no? It may be my imagination (I hope not), but we seem to be working in partnership with the life-saving stuff falling from the skies, as opposed to squawking "More! More!" from the cuckoo-nests we inhabit.



It's worth noting that nowhere else in the world has a middle-class urban population cut its domestic water consumption so swiftly and dramatically. Not Melbourne, not even Sao Paulo AFTER its taps ran dry, and most certainly not California, which has taken four years to get its average water consumption down from 85 GALLONS per person per day to 60 GALLONS (a ridiculously lavish 227 litres per day!!). Yes, you may now pause to feel smug for a minute, all you 50-litre-a-day users. The California target, during their recent prolonged and devastating drought, was to cut water use by twenty per cent. We've cut ours, in a year, by sixty per cent.

But (and you knew this was coming) are we out of the woods yet? Hell, no. We are unlikely EVER to be out of the woods again. The woods are where we live now. So we need to keep on keeping on: saving every drop, harvesting whatever we can, begrudging every turn of the tap. On the days when I feel grumbly about the extra water chores, I remind myself that this is how most people live; fetching, carrying, heating and disposing of all the water their family uses.

Some things now come automatically; some we're still getting used to. Now that rain IS falling, many of us are getting to grips with the bulky green lifesavers standing in our yards, and they can take some getting used to. Am brewing a piece on how to love, live with and even share your rainwater tank(s). But now I must put on lipstick and go and launch my little water book with a splash.

One last thing for today: Tom Brown, who does the dam and water reports I rely on most, you get not only a bow and multiple curtain calls, but a huge bouquet of (waterwise) blomme. Thank you for your sterling service to your fellow citizens.

Helen Moffett
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