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What life looks like at 'Day Zero'
04:05 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

CNN meteorologist limits his water usage to only 25 liters a day

When you turn off the water to your house, it makes it easier to conserve water

CNN  — 

It’s a frustrating feeling to wake up and realize that you don’t have running water.

Just like any other morning, I turned the handles of my bathroom sink faucet, expecting ice-cold H2O to flow freely into my cup. But this day, nothing came out. Our taps had gone dry.

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It’s not because of some unforeseen circumstance. Instead, my family and I had chosen to turn off the water supply to our home for 24 hours. We restricted ourselves to just 25 liters (6.6 gallons) per person in solidarity with the people of Cape Town, South Africa, who are facing unprecedented water restrictions because of drought.

Cape Town’s struggle hits close to home for us. My wife and I met there. She was born and raised there. And I lived there for nearly a decade, working as a television meteorologist, before moving to Atlanta to work for CNN.

Our 24 hours with rationed water was set up to represent “Day Zero,” the day when Cape Town’s taps are expected to shut off, not because they chose to – like us – but because there will be no more water in the reservoir. The 4 million Cape Town residents will be forced to wait in line at emergency allocation points throughout the city. Each person will be allotted 25 liters per day.

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What I can attest to is this: Twenty-five liters is not very much. By comparison, the average American uses between 300 and 375 liters, 80-100 gallons, per day according to the United States Geological Survey.

This could be the first time in modern history that a major metropolitan city is forced to turn off water to conserve the last drops and stave off a disaster. Thanks to the people who are now conserving water, Day Zero is slowly getting pushed further back. And there is the hope that this will be one of the city’s finest moments, preventing a humanitarian crisis.

In our experience, there seems to be no way that a city could go on with only 25 liters a day per person. For our family of three (we have an 11-month daughter and another baby on the way), restricting our water usage quickly tested our patience. Mine especially, as my wife, Tara, denied me extra water for my typical second, third and fourth cups of coffee.

“It’s going to have to come out of your drinking water ration if you want it,” she said.

Denying me an extra cup of coffee first thing in the morning is like depriving a young child of his toys. I use coffee as a frivolous example, but of course, we had to take more extreme measures to abide by the strict water restrictions that Cape Town faces.

This commodity that we had taken for granted was no longer freely available, and we needed to adapt.

No one told me I had to use Maya’s dirty bath water

This new experience really began to hit home when we stared at the 20 1-gallon jugs (roughly 75 liters for a family of three) sitting on our dining room table. We needed to bathe, flush our toilets, brush our teeth, do laundry, cook food, stay hydrated and feed our pets with less than a 10th of what the normal American uses in a day.

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In order to stretch this finite resource, we had to make drastic changes.

Taking a shower was interesting – and cold. Of course, what we didn’t think about is not having the luxury of warm water flowing from our faucets. So back to basics we went, heating a few gallons at a time in the most massive pot we could find.

Maya, my daughter, got the fresh water. We cleaned her first in a small tub. Her leftovers, or what is called gray water, we dumped into Tara’s bath. We added a bit more heated clean water so she could bathe; 2 inches of standing water isn’t what we consider relaxing.

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And forget about trying to wash your hair. Tara says dry shampoo is the best way to go, but her mom – who is still living through the drought in Cape Town – says it is impossible to find it in South Africa because everyone has had this idea. Some are even turning to dreadlocks for the foreseeable future.

Taking a bath had become a team sport. As the water cooled quickly in the tub, my wife kindly brought me the remainder of the stovetop water. I lathered up as fast as possible with small amounts of soap and called it good. This sponge bath wasn’t, by any stretch, my standard TV-ready clean.

There are so many things we had taken for granted, like the constant availability of hot water.

That and flushing a toilet.

After watching Capetonians on social media, we learned that clean water isn’t necessary to flush a toilet. Following their example, we grabbed a bucket, dipped it in the leftover bath water and deposited it into the empty cistern of our toilet.

One of the most abundant uses of household water is from flushing the toilet. We chose to designate our toilets for two very different bodily functions. We were adamant to abide by the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” method. You’d be surprised how much water you can save.

Somethings came easier to conserve than I expected

Brushing our teeth was no different from the times my father would take me camping in the wilderness: one cup of water to wet my toothbrush and the rest to wash out my mouth once I finished. We often had excess water from brushing our teeth, which we used for the cat’s drinking bowl.

Shaving required plugging up the sink and rinsing my razor in the allocated water, not a huge sacrifice but definitely a change from what I’m used to.

Alternatively, washing my clothes forced me to alter my habits. Ordinarily, I would save up a week’s dirty laundry and just throw it in the machine to get clean. Not today!

I have never done laundry by hand before, but what other option did we have? We took two buckets: one for water with cleaning detergent and another for rinsing.

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Washing our clothes was by far the most significant use of our allocated water. We managed to blow through over 22 liters (6 gallons) just with that. And we cleaned only our daily use of clothes. We didn’t even wash the other things you would typically, like bed linens, towels or the baby messes that surprise us on any given day.

We did find it was easier to cook on our ration of water than I had anticipated. Since we planned out our menu, we were able to stick to meals that required little water.

However, cleaning up was challenging. Each side of our sink was stoppered. One side we used for dirty, soapy water; the other we used for rinsing purposes. As we worked our way through the day and ultimately our meals, we noticed the rinse water becoming unusable, so we replaced it a few times to keep things fresh.

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Another trick we learned from our friends and family in Cape Town is to use paper plates when possible, and if you do need to clean dishes, wipe any excess food off before washing them.

At the end of an exhausting day, my family of three (plus our cat) had managed to use less than the allotted 75 liters, leaving roughly 3 liters of excess water.

That’s all due to the diligence of Tara, who kept a spreadsheet of how much water we could use for our daily routines. It was about 4 p.m. when she realized that without Maya’s allocation, we would have already run out of our individual distributions of water. It just happens that a 1-year-old has a smaller water footprint than the allocation provides.

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This was a challenging exercise, and I don’t wish it on any of my friends and family in Cape Town. But when you are forced to shut off your tap, we feel like 25 liters per day is doable and we could adapt to fit the rationing into our lifestyle.

There is also the realization that living with water restrictions for 24 hours is nowhere close to the realities of doing it for weeks or months on end. And doing so could have a compounding effect on our stress levels. To really understand the effects of these restrictions on our family, we would have to be part of the water rationing for a more extended period.

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    Twenty-five liters a day is possible but not ideal. The hope is that Day Zero will continue to get pushed back and that the rainy season will come soon.

    But the truth is that even if it doesn’t happen this year, climatologists say it will happen. Maybe not in Cape Town, but Day Zero is likely to occur in a major city in our lifetime.