Editor’s Note: Cape Town is enduring the worst water crisis to face a modern city, and its officials project it may run out of water next year, if not sooner. This is the next installment in Cape Town Diary, a series exploring how Cape Town’s water crisis is affecting the daily life of its residents. Raymond Joseph is a freelance journalist living and working in Cape Town. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
By now, residents of Cape Town have grown used to living with the extreme drought that has the city by the throat – but every now and then something happens that makes the reality of what we are facing very personal. For me, such a moment came last week when a decades-old rose bush in my garden literally keeled over dead, a victim of the drought.
I am only the third owner of my house, which was built in 1929. This particular rose bush was planted by the first owner, who moved out over 50 years ago. And ever since we moved in, nearly 25 years ago, this rose bush has produced beautifully scented red roses year in and year out.
As a quick reminder, under drought conditions, we can only use gray water – produced mostly from our shallow baths or quick showers – to water our garden. But the garden is not our priority. We first use the gray water to flush toilets. Which means that this magnificent old rose bush has not been getting enough water and has literally died of thirst.
Honestly, it felt like losing an old friend.
Of course, my rose bush is not unique. Across the city, lawns are brown and dying – and many plants are barely clinging to life. Even aloe plants, suited for drier conditions, are struggling to survive.
Cape Town, a winter rainfall area, is normally dry in summer. But this year, with extreme Level 6 restrictions in force, it is drier than I can ever remember since I moved here almost three decades ago. The ubiquitous sprinklers we used to water our gardens in the dry winter are no more.
But it’s not just the gardens taking a hit in the hot summer. There is a ban on filling swimming pools, which means many pools have become storage units for water used in flushing toilets and gardens.
Sports events have been canceled because of the condition of playing fields, and the annual Cape Town Cycle tour has taken extraordinary measures to ensure that it does not impact Cape Town’s water supplies. Besides importing, from a drought free area, all the water that will be used during the race, the organizers are also trucking in over 580,000 gallons to add to the city’s potable water supplies.
And restaurants, in a struggle to stay open, have had to change the entire dining experience. The Test Kitchen, voted South Africa’s top restaurant for the past six years running, has implemented drastic water saving measures and rebranded itself “The Drought Kitchen.”
Water saving measures that have been implemented include requesting customers to use the same knife and fork for all six gourmet courses and doing away with plates. Food is now served on a biodegradable cardboard base, changed after each course, that slides into a custom-made picture frame. Ice bucket water and recycled air conditioner water is used for washing floors and general cleaning, and linen tablecloths and napkins have been done away with. Instead of retrenching laundry staff, they have retrained them in other food preparation jobs.
As with others, the owners were faced with a stark choice of adapting or dying, forcing The Test Kitchen into new ways of thinking about saving water. What this drought has done is to teach us all valuable lessons about how precious – and finite – water is, and to find innovative ways to survive on far less than we had become used to in the days of plenty.
Our efforts have finally paid off. A few days ago, the Cape Town Council announced that it believed we will avoid Day Zero after water use was slashed in half. That doesn’t mean we’ve dodged that bullet – and unless we get good rains this winter and carry on using water frugally, we face the prospect of a new Day Zero next year.
But for now, we can take a bit of comfort in knowing that Day Zero will likely not be a problem in 2018. I just wish my rose bush could have hung in until Cape Town’s rain finally arrives.