1001 Water-wise ways: Ode to the woman with a blue stripey hat

Today, for the first time in a while, I went for a long walk on Noordhoek beach, close to where I live. I needed to think. I'd been wondering about climate-change denialists all week, after someone posted several links (on the watershedding Facebook page) "refuting" the awful, inescapable reality that we are turning our planet into a burning tip.

I often wonder about these folk: how is it possible to identify publicly as so credulous and ignorant? I'm sure there are people who truly believe that elves come out and dance at the bottom of their gardens every full moon, but they tend not to stand up and shout about it. It doesn't help that climate-change denial seems to be the official administrative position of supposedly one of the most scientifically advanced countries in the world. From putting the first human on the moon to "No, no, these hurricanes and droughts and melting ice-caps and scary extremes of heat and cold are nothing to do with us!" in 50 years. It's a terrifying time-warp in reverse, even with the facts staring us in the face: here are the bald, brutal figures on the current near-apocalyptic summer in the Northern hemisphere.

Then I read this frightening article. A friend posted it on social media, and wrote "We need to talk about this." No one would. It's too big and too scary to contemplate our lemming-like rush to self-destruction. One thing astronomy has taught us is that there are bazillions of planets out there, spinning through the vast galaxy, and all we've able to learn about them so far is that they are hostile to life. By some extraordinary, incredible, mind-blowing miraculous coincidence, this little stop in the Milky Way has produced the perfect conditions for an equally mind-blowing tapestry of ecosystems and species to thrive. But we're prepared to wreck that -- to turn the planet into a chunk of coal -- and for what? Just so a tiny, tiny percentage of the human population can have solid gold toilets and Lear jets and huge holiday mansions they don't even live in?

By now I was in such despair, I knew only a beach walk would help. This is my prescription: I don layers of jackets, scarves and a woolly hat, roll up my pants, walk down the beach and wade into the sea's edge. Then I slog along through wet sand and brine and froth, the shush of the surf a literal white noise. I swear, it's never THAT cold. Well. Bracing is the word. Something about the sound and scent of the sea, the repetitive movement, the numbness from the knees down, the constant shifts of weather and light, the birds and the mountain vistas switch off the hopeless and helpless thoughts.

And then I spotted a small woman in the distance, who kept stooping. She was wearing a knitted hat with blue and white stripes, and carrying a bag. As I got closer, I realised she was picking up every piece of plastic trash and waste she found, and she'd clearly been at it for a while: her bag was bulging.

And I realised hers was the only sane solution: to the problem of climate change, our water crisis, the problem of plastic waste, our insane economic model of growth and profit (and greed) at all costs: JUST DO SOMETHING. Even if it's an hour on a winter Sunday afternoon helping clean up your own backyard. Or local beach. She gave me a glimmer of hope: reminding me that ordinary people in their everyday lives can have an impact beyond themselves, and the accumulative impact of that has the potential to grow and grow. Maybe there are ways out of this: maybe saving the planet is going to be such a full-time and enormous task that it's going to be the huge job creator of the near future -- and that would be a fine thing.

Whatever the future holds: be more like Blue-Stripey-Hat-Woman. Capetonians know that our water crisis has created all sorts of everyday s/heroes: it's surprisingly easy to be one of them. So thank you: from one wearer of knitted hats to another, I salute you. I didn't want to invade your privacy, so you're in this pic, on the far right, doing your thing, but not identifiable. WAY TO GO and thank you!


Helen Moffett
1001 Water-wise ways: Living in the danger zone
Photograph by Ken Barris.

Photograph by Ken Barris.

It's raining rain! Hallelujah, it's raining rain! And all weekend too here in Cape Town (after a disquietingly dry few weeks). The grass is green, the flowers have been insisting it's spring for weeks, the dams are steadily filling -- or are they?

I pore over Tom Brown's Cape Water and Dams Report religiously (a consistently trustworthy source of information who supplies proof of or references for every claim he reports), and the latest is that the dams are 56,7% full (overall). But oh dear: in the last fortnight, the rise has been only 0.2%. Yup: not 2%, 0.2%. Now have a look at this very useful chart Tom has been tracking all year:

Taken from https://showme.co.za/paarl/lifestyle/nature-outdoors/cape-water-and-dams-report-116/

Taken from https://showme.co.za/paarl/lifestyle/nature-outdoors/cape-water-and-dams-report-116/

You see that yellow band? That's the danger zone -- in other words, where the amount of water available to us is stressed, and unable to meet urban and agricultural needs unless coupled with stringent water restrictions. And this is where we are right now -- and we're approaching the END of our winter rainfall season. To climb out the danger zone, we need to rise beyond 60% (and remember, in the last fortnight, storage crept up by all of 0.2%) to make it through the summer, with its special challenges -- like evaporation, tourism and let's not forget, no rain -- our summers are dry, and like Europe, it seems a scorcher lies in wait for us. (So this is why we're still bathing in buckets. At least, I HOPE YOU ARE.) 

Take a closer look at that graph: especially that notch half-way between April 2018 and May 2018. It shows how narrowly we scraped past a disastrous drop into the failure zone (which would have meant queuing with buckets at water stations). So when I see seasoned journalists claiming that Day Zero was a political hoax, I am tempted to lock them up in a room with this graph and a pair of spectacles. Moreover, we dodged the Day Zero bullet largely because the Groenland Water Users Association (GWUA) released water from their dams into the municipal system, gambling with their own future in the process. So the cavalry really did gallop to the rescue -- but we cannot guarantee that this will happen again.

We have to go on saving ourselves -- and by and large, we're doing a really good job. We never quite get down to the City's target of 450 ML/day, but we hover pretty close to it. And we could do it, too, if a few more people came to the party: because I live on an estate, the water consumption of each household is known not only to the City, but the estate management, which keeps a beady eye on us. I was hugely frustrated to read in the latest newsletter that while a number of us (the majority) are "staying within the restrictions, some are not, and some appear not even to be trying." There are households using more -- in a few cases, WAY more -- than 20 kl per month (twice the limit urged by the City) and they can't ALL have three kids in nappies.

But enough of water, for now: right now, I have now plastic lined up in my sights. See that beautiful photograph of a sea-shore that opens this blog? Now imagine it with a plastic bag or bottle, or a straw, or even an earbud washed up on it. Let's clean up our act. I have lots of ideas for reducing plastic waste and I'd love to hear yours (while totally agreeing with green guru Leonie Joubert that the real change needs to happen at the corporate and manufacturing top of the chain, instead of relying on consumers to mop up the mess at the end). So please send your best plastic-reduction/avoidance tips, and I'll feature them here.

Here's one to start you off, inspired by anti-plastic warrior Karoline Hanks: what's with the plastic bag in which Clicks and Dis-chem seal your medicines before putting it in a wire cage and then locking the cage with a cable-tie? (I fail to understand any part of this process.) Ask the dispensing pharmacist to put your goods straight into the basket, or to use a paper bag, or hand them a paper or cloth bag that can be sealed shut with one of their sticky thingies. And if they have to lock the basket shut (heaven forbid that your 'flu meds might make a bolt for freedom), why not use a padlock that the cashiers all have a key for?

Helen Moffett
1001 water-wise ways: Plastic ain't fantastic

Huge excitement last week: my raintank finally arrived and was installed! It's only taken ten months since I first asked permission... BUT HERE IT IS, FOLKS. Now where is the rain to fill it up? We seem to have slipped back into a dry spell, and we still need a LOT of rain to make it through next summer. But let's stop rain-dancing for a minute -- do you notice anything odd about my newly delivered raintank?


Yes, you spotted it too! Why the sam hill has it been encased in plastic wrap? It's a piece of outdoor equipment made of hard plastic, not eggshell or china, and I'm hardly likely to care about the odd nick or scratch.

Anyone with half an eye knows that the planet is choking on plastic, another long-term debt we're bequeathing to our children's children and the planet. Having been a compulsive recycler for a long time, I'm been noting with growing alarm how products and goods are coming with more and more and more plastic wrapping. I recycle almost everything I don't compost, and while my boxes of tin, glass and paper have stayed the same over years, the bag for plastics just keeps getting more humungous every few months. I'm now filling 2-litre bottles with single-use plastics for donation to building projects, and what's scary is that even shopping with a watchful and green eye, so much of the stuff still manages to sneak into my home.

I saw a lovely headline the other day: "Is plastic the new fur?" Demanding (or rather, passively accepting) that our goods come swathed in plastic is increasingly an ethical problem. It's turning our seas into killing zones, and our landfills into toxic zones (plastic doesn't biodegrade, so it has to be burned, which renders it exceptionally nasty). Don't take my word for it -- this doesn't sound good: " PVC and halogenated additives are mixed into plastic waste and their incineration leads to release of dioxins and polychlorinated-biphenyls into the environment."

But that's enough gloom-science; as this blog is (mostly) for the middle-class consumer, here's one way to cut down on plastic that I've been meaning to punt for ages: how often have you been at the supermarket (or any kind of shop) and realised your reusable bags are at home or in the boot of your car? And what to do about those little rustly plastic bags we put our onions and apples into before having them weighed?

The trail-runner Karoline Hanks has an absolutely brilliant solution: these little shweshwe owls that clip onto your handbag or belt with a tough carabiner. They are small enough that they never get in the way, and out of them, like rabbits from a magician's hat, you pull out three tough but light shopping bags made of parachute fabric, and two lightweight cloth veggie bags (I need more of these, please, otherwise this package can't be faulted). Here, look:

Practical and cute.

Practical and cute.

And look what emerges!

And look what emerges!

Contact details: that e-address is karabos@mweb.co.za

Contact details: that e-address is karabos@mweb.co.za

Mine was a gift (for which I am grateful every time I trot into a shop), but I believe that they're extremely reasonably priced, and they make wonderful presents. I haven't had to buy a plastic supermarket bag (looking around furtively and guiltily) since getting mine.


Helen Moffett
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