“TRY AND NOT look into the toilet bowl, eh? You are not going to like what you see,” says Darren, my Airbnb host in Cape Town, South Africa, even before I could place my luggage on the squeaky teak-wood floor of his palatial apartment. Darren’s home is located in a leafy, breezy and affluent neighbourhood of the city, and from the living room French windows I have already caught a view of the northern face of Table Mountain. But the tour of his house begins with an invitation to the bathroom. “And don’t flush. We have a saying now that goes, ‘If it’s yellow let it mellow’.”
The bathroom was once built for leisure—enough room to comfortably sponge in a bookshelf, a magazine rack, stone busts of Africa’s big cats, a bidet and a row of flower pots. The plants, however, are not as much wilting as they are dead, doubled over soil so stale it is now dust. All this, I only notice later—my eyes first gaze over a room choked with plastic containers of different sizes. There’s a small one plugging the wash basin, an oval tub in the bidet and a flat, circular bucket in the bath tub, directly under the shower nozzle.
“When you bathe, only if you really have to, stand in that bucket. The run-off will be used to drain the toilet. But showering for over two minutes is strictly prohibited,” says Darren, pointing at an alarm clock seated over the lidded commode. “Use that clock. It’s old-fashioned and loud. Now to the wash basin. Wash your hands over the container. When you brush your teeth, use the tap only to fill the beaker, it’s in the shelf.” The transparent beaker, with millilitre demarcations on the side, tops out at 250 ml, the size of an average whisky glass. This is Cape Town of 2018, where the mantra is: don’t lather, don’t rinse, always repeat.
One of the bluest cities on this planet, a city flanked on either side by two oceans (the Indian and the Atlantic), a city known in the local dialect as Xhamissa, or, ‘the land of sweet waters’, is now dehydrated. Arguably the prettiest metropolis in the world has been struck by inarguably the ugliest natural crisis in modern times—Cape Town is just weeks away from becoming the first major city to run out of fresh water. Blame it on three consecutive years of scant rainfall—the worst drought to hit this city in over a century—or poor planning, or both, the city’s water supply, its dams, have been storing record-low quantities of water. Today, the water-level in the dams is less than a quarter full, at 24 per cent of capacity.
17 Weeks to go for Day Zero, which is currently set for July 15, 2018
When that number falls to 13.5 per cent, the government will cut off running water in the homes of each of Cape Town’s 4 million inhabitants. That day has a tentative date, set currently at July 15th, 2018. That day has a name. A post-apocalyptic name. Capetonians call it Day Zero, a day when all of Western Province’s capital city, Black and White, rich and poor, young and old will be forced to queue up outside public checkpoints with their jerrycans, each person rationed to a total of 25 litres of water a day. To put that quantity in perspective, your average commode tank gushes out nine litres of water every time you hit the flush.
The severity of Cape Town’s water-crisis is best understood when you realise that the arrival of Day Zero cannot be stopped, only delayed. And the burden to postpone the inevitable has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the city’s last responders, its residents. When I visited the city in the first week of January earlier this year, Level 6 Water Restrictions had just been imposed and we were limited to 87 litres of water per person per household, a luxury compared to the Level 6B limit of 50 litres per person today.
But Darren and his partner’s quota of 174 litres was shared by his five Airbnb guests—leaving each of us with a little under the Day Zero scenario of 25 litres per day. So, we rinsed our mouths with water from a beaker the size of a whisky glass (three gulps if budgeted to perfection), showered every third day (with an eye on the ticking hand of the alarm clock) and heard the comforting sound of a flush only if we happened to be the last user of a long and dry day. The pleasure of peering into clean porcelain is a pleasure that borders on the profound.
25 Litres of water per person to be rationed from Day Zero. A single flush uses 9 litres
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to miss the efforts to conserve water in Cape Town. Most street lights are draped with fluttering cloth posters of ‘Think Water’—the city council’s go-to website which, among many other functions, keeps tabs on dam levels and provides a calculator to help one stay within the daily limit. On electronic hoardings along freeways, the messages are almost exclusively crisis-related—‘If it smells nice wear it twice’, or ‘If it’s brown flush it down’. The Tsogo Sun, Africa’s largest chain of high-end hotels and the continent’s biggest casino operator, has built itself a desalination plant—a ridiculously expensive process of removing salt from seawater—to remain Day Zero-proof. This alternate source of water, however, wasn’t yet an option when the Indian cricket team stayed in one of its properties in January, so Virat Kohli and his men too were read the riot act.
Meanwhile, The Test Kitchen, the continent’s most famous restaurant (rated the 22nd best restaurant in the world at the Worlds Best Restaurant Awards) has renamed itself The Drought Kitchen, trading its china for disposable cutlery. Several eateries and bars on the gorgeous stretch of sand known as Hout Bay followed The Test Kitchen’s lead, serving food and drinks in paper plates and cups, respectively. “It doesn’t make a damned difference,” Lwazi, a customer sipping his brew in a takeaway mug, tells me in a pub. “The crisis has crippled us, paralysed us. And we are proud of having found a Band-Aid.”
13.5% The combined level of dams at which Cape Town’s taps will be turned off
Lwazi makes a valid point. Cape Town’s city planners have been accused of playing catch-up—ignoring the warning signs and not taking nearly enough measures to prevent the current predicament. Aryn Baker, Time magazine’s Africa bureau chief, blames the situation on ‘spectacularly bad crisis management’. In the February issue of Time, she wrote: ‘As dam levels began to decline amid the first two years of drought, the default response by city leadership was a series of vague exhortations to be “water aware”.’
According to another report in the South African website News24.com, the mismanagement predates even the onset of drought. “We warned the department of water and sanitation in 2012 there would be a drought and told them they needed to start financial planning and upgrading infrastructure to increase water capacity,” the 2015 article quotes Julius Kleynhans, AfriForum’s then head of environmental affairs, as saying. “Sadly, this could have been avoided had the regulator enforced the law.”
To be fair to the planners, Helen Zille, former Mayor of Cape Town and the incumbent Premier of the Western Province, was the first to take ownership of the crisis, accepting responsibility in an open letter to her citizens. ‘Let me start with Provincial Government [my] responsibility: oversight, monitoring and support. It was OUR oversight responsibility to spot the crisis coming and to take the necessary steps to pre-empt it…’ This was in October 2017. In January 2018, when Day Zero became an immediate reality, Zille’s tone turned rather dire.
50 The current total water level of the city’s dams
“As things stand, the challenge exceeds anything a major city has had to face anywhere in the world since the Second World War or 9/11. I personally doubt whether it is possible for a city the size of Cape Town to distribute sufficient water to its residents, using its own resources, once the underground waterpipe network has been shut down,” Zille said, before adding, “The question that dominates my waking hours now is: When Day Zero arrives, how do we make water accessible and prevent anarchy?”
Anarchy. Water wars. Cape Town. If you throw those keywords together into a Google searchbar, the predominant result is For the Mercy of Water, a dystopian novel by Capetonian author Karen Jayes . The book’s blurb reads, ‘In a country gripped by drought, water has become the priceless commodity over which a deadly war is being waged…’ It was published in 2012, three years before the first drought-hit season. “When I wrote my book I envisioned this very moment because I had seen that there were many seeking to make business from water, treating it like ‘blue gold’ and mining it and extracting it for financial gain,” she told Timeslive.co.za.
On Day Zero, the fine line between fact and fiction will blur in Cape Town and a majority of the city’s 4 million inhabitants will take to the streets, under the watchful gaze of the armed forces, to collect their 25 litre ration of water. To get a sense of what that wretched dawn will feel like, I decided to visit the natural spring in the quaint and White suburb of Newlands, where thousands have already begun queueing up, empty jerrycans in tow.
HOUSED INSIDE THE Breweries of Newlands, the city’s premier beer-bottling plant, the natural spring presents itself in the form of eight aluminium taps affixed to a curved brick wall. But before one can get into the compound of the spring, one must pass the black gate outside, plastered with notices. The largest sign reads: ‘Due to unfortunate incidents of criminal activity and abuse of the facility (filling up bulk containers) during off peak times this facility will now be CLOSED between 11 pm and 5 am daily.’
24% The current number of litres of water allowed per person in every household
The natural spring, around which the brewery was constructed, has—by law—been open to the public for the last century and more. But rules had to be changed when commercial enterprises began filling industrial amounts of water late into the night, causing fights and sometimes even arrests. Now, to ensure that the priceless spring water is not used illegally, two security guards, dressed in fluorescent green bibs, keep vigil by the taps round the clock. The gate, though, remains unmanned—apart from an unkempt man seated with his back against the heavy hinges.
He is peddling jerrycans. “You want? Good jerrycans—5 litre, 10 litre, 20 litre—all sizes,” he says, noticing I have arrived empty- handed. “Even supermarkets don’t have. Go check in Pick’n’Pay. I wait for you. You come back, I tell you price.” When I assure him that I am not here to be a burden on the supply, of both the city’s water and its jerrycans, he spits into the ground. “Then why you come to spring. Ge’outta here. I dun wanna see you here. Wastin’ my time.” After his outburst, he turns his head away, choosing not to watch me walk inside.
The compound is divided into two peaceful queues of varying lengths. The shorter queue veers towards the right, where the two ‘express’ taps are—a maximum of 15 litres per person per fill and allowance for those with single bottles to get ahead. The longer queue is far longer, headed towards their destination of six taps allowing a fill of 25 litres. I take my place at the back of the longer queue, behind Shazia, whose children Farhaan and Roshaan are playing a long game of hide-and-seek around her burkha.
A housewife, Shazia lives in the suburb of Epping, a half hour drive from here. She says she makes the to-and-fro trip twice a day. “Big family, I live with my husband and his parents. Water runs out quite quickly,” Shazia says, holding one of her five jerrycans against her face to shield her from the harsh Cape Town sun. After she fills her quota of 25 litres, she will place the full jerrycans in the boot of her car and queue up at the back of the line with five more empty containers. “That’s the most the Subaru can carry without breaking down,” she says. Why doesn’t anybody else from the family queue up with her, I ask. She shrugs. “Rahman’s parents are old. And Rahman works 9 to 5 at Cape Town Railway Station.” He puts bread on the table. She replenishes the water.
Half-way to the taps and under an alien palm tree, we take refuge from the sun. Soon, we are at the front of the line and the security guard, standing on a slab of stone, ushers Shazia and her children towards the spring for their turn. Just as I am about to turn around and leave, the guard calls for my attention with his index finger. “What are you doing here without any bottles?” he asks, towering over me from his vantage point. “Just here to watch,” I say. The answer leaves the guard in a bout of coughs and full body giggles. “Just watchin’, eh. I also just watchin’. All day just watchin’ watchin’ watchin’. You want my job, eh? Come, join me then. We watch together.”
His name is Robert. And from his platform we keep a close eye on Cape Town’s most precious commodity—blue gold. “All day everyday I see people come and go. People of every race, every colour, lining up here in harmony, waiting for their turn,” he says. I ask him if tensions ever rise and if he finds himself breaking up fights. Robert shakes his head. “No, man,” he says. “Look around. There are Whites and Blacks and Browns and Coloured here. But the only colour that matters to all of them has no colour at all.”