Nobody knows what's next for Cape Town's water supply — so some are preparing for the worst

How did Cape Town, a sprawling city of four million people, come to the point where residents are left wondering when "Day Zero" — when dam levels are considered low enough to turn off the taps and ration water — will arrive.

City looking at desalination and drawing on aquifers as it tries to maintain its water supply

Masha du Toit, a writer and artist, has taken the water reduction recommendations to heart. (Lily Martin/CBC)

This story is part of our series Water at Risk, which looks at Cape Town's drought and some potential risks to the water supply facing parts of Canada and the Middle East. Read more stories in the series.

South African writer and artist Masha du Toit can't figure out whether her neighbours are simply unaware, or whether she has become too obsessive about Cape Town's water crisis.

"Yesterday I was in a coffee shop and I was with my sister and we were supposed to be having a lovely conversation," says du Toit, "but I just kept looking at the waitress, you know, washing a single cup under the open tap."

Cape Town is in its third consecutive year of drought and residents have been asked to drastically reduce their daily water consumption to 50 litres a day or watch the city run dry.

Du Toit, who lives with her husband, a dog, two budgies and some fish, has taken the directive further than most. 

Maybe that's because she writes science fiction and has no problem imagining what a world without water might look like.

Du Toit no longer showers, bathing out of a bucket instead. And she's cropped her hair to make it easier to wash.

She uses grey water to wash the dishes and laundry and probiotic soap means any water left over can still be used for the plants — succulents only, of course.

Using the toilet is more complicated. It's also flushed with grey water but only rarely so.

Du Toit uses grey water — reusable wastewater from places like the sink — for everything she can at her home in the Marina da Gama neighbourhood of Cape Town. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Du Toit and her husband don't like to leave urine sitting in the basin for hours so they use plastic containers and empty them in a drain outside.

It might seem over the top, she says, but it's a way of keeping the panic at bay, of maintaining control.

Every gutter on her small house is directed down into plastic water tanks or collection buckets for those rare occasions when it rains.

She says when she's feeling a bit down, she looks at the "beautiful and actually surprisingly clean water" that she's collected. "And I know it's here. So it makes me feel a bit safer. Water security. That's what it is all about."

Desperate for rain

So how is it that Cape Town has come to this? A city of four million people, nowhere near "water secure." Instead, Capetonians are left wondering when "Day Zero" — when dam levels are considered low enough to turn off the taps and ration water — will arrive.

The dams that supply the city are hovering at just 23 per cent of capacity, the city says.  Back in 2015, that number was around 63 per cent.

The municipality, controlled by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), says it had no way of predicting such a lengthy drought.

Coun. Xanthea Limberg says weather forecasts predicted average rainfalls for the winter months in 2017. Instead it was the lowest rainfall for the area in 100 years of recorded history.

Coun. Xanthea Limberg says Cape Town is doing more than it's required to under the constitution in terms of dealing with the water crisis. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Limberg says the uncertainty around weather data made it difficult for officials to make immediate decisions around bulking up the water supply.

Cape Town is dependent on rain-fed reservoirs around the city for its water. It has only recently begun building three temporary desalination plants to tap in to the surrounding oceans.

Tests are also being carried out on nearby aquifers, although a number of scientists have cautioned against depleting ground water in large amounts.

"Desalination is going to save the city in the long run, without a doubt," says water expert Kevin Winter of the University of Cape Town, although he says it's not something that should be rushed.

Kevin Winter, an expert in urban water management at the University of Cape Town, says desalination will be key as the city tries to move toward a more sustainable water system. (Lily Martin/CBC)

"It's water all around us. It doesn't make sense for us to continue to exploit either ground water or continue to build more dams for surface water," he says.

Limberg is quick to point out that under South Africa's Water Act, responsibility for the municipality's water supply actually lies with the national government.

"Here we are investing our own resources in augmenting our supply. This is not what the constitution requires us to do."

State of emergency

That's also politics coming in to play. The Western Cape's DA government has been a thorn in the side of the country's ruling African National Congress (ANC).

The DA accused the ANC government under the recently departed President Jacob Zuma of punishing Cape Town by ignoring the drought.

African government — under the new President Cyril Ramaphosa — declared the drought in Cape Town and other affected regions a national disaster. 

That will free up funding to help deal with the water crisis.

For many, collecting free fresh water at one of the springs running beneath Table Mountain has become a regular family ritual on weekends. (Lily Martin/CBC)

The date when taps are expected to be cut off has moved more than once, and the DA recently caused some controversy by declaring that the city was close to pushing Day Zero off the horizon completely. It's now set at 2019.

But that applies only if the rains come as expected in June and people keep consumption low.

Both political parties are likely trying to position themselves as being stronger than the other in trying to tackle the drought. 

But it's divided people. Some say the DA announcement is taking the foot off the pedal too soon, and others that there never should have been a Day Zero in the first place because it spooked much needed tourists.

"In my opinion they went too negative," says hotel owner Mariehette Davel.

"Everybody phoned and everybody was worried. We can't go that negative in a city that relies on tourists."

'Huge' and growing city

But the DA insists the city needed the jolt.

Even today more than half of Cape Town's residents are not adhering to the 50 litre a day limit, according to authorities.

And that warrants a look at city's consumption habits in general — in particular, the habits of those in the wealthy suburbs with green grass and swimming pools. That's where the vast majority of municipal water is consumed.

Just 4 per cent is used in the informal settlements and townships where many people still dream of running water and sanitation.

Cape Town, already a sprawling city, has been growing. Its population has doubled since the end of apartheid in the 1990s. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Kevin Winter, the water expert, says that prompts him to question the nature of the drought.

"We've got to ask ourselves is this a meteorological drought, one which there is low rainfall?"

Or, Winter asks, is it a "socioeconomic drought" that has been brought on by excessive demand for water and poor water resource management?

One exacerbating factor has been population growth. Cape Town has exploded from a city of two million people at the end of apartheid in the 1990s to four million today.

Cape Town is looking to desalination to meet at least some of the need for water. But the construction of new plants will take time, and come at a hefty cost. (Lily Martin/CBC)

"The city is extensive, too, and covers an area of about 2,200 square kilometres, so it's huge," says Winter, talking about the added strain in terms of pipelines and sewage systems.

A water-based toilet system is a part of the problem in his view. A single flush can use up to five days of potable water for one person. 

"That's where a lot of our water is literally being flushed down the toilet and we're not doing enough to reclaim that water on the other side and to use it effectively," he says.

It's led to a debate over the viability of something called dry sanitation, which includes things like composting toilets or toilets designed to separate urine and feces.

When she moved house a few months ago, Du Toit made the conscious decision to plant succulents, which require less water. She's even ready to turn this recycling bin into a composting toilet, if she needs to. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Masha du Toit is one step ahead of the game. She's already imagined the possibility, even though she admits she's got mixed feelings about it, pointing to a large recycling bin on wheels.

"This big red horrible thing that you see here," she says. "If we ever have to, we are going to turn this into a composting toilet. Because nobody knows what's going to happen."

Whatever it is though, she'll try to be prepared. Her way of coping.

"Even if day zero doesn't happen and they don't actually switch off our water I don't think we're very soon going to go back to the days when we didn't have to think about it." 
(CBC)

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