Living With Water Shortage in Cape Town

By Fernanda Ortiz, Global Co-op

I have always taken water for granted. Only when I return home to Mexico do I ever think twice about water’s  cleanliness and safety, but I have never imagined what life would be like with water restrictions, or even no water at all.

For my second co-op, I decided to take the opportunity to travel to Cape Town, South Africa, to work for a non-profit organization. I had traveled to South Africa seven years before, but since then had learned more about Cape Town as a city both full of economic disparities while also being the most Western-style city in Africa. Not once during my research of what prepare for in Cape Town did I hear about the water shortage that was plaguing this beautiful city bordered by the Atlantic.

For those who might not be aware of the situation, over the past year Cape Town has been grappling with a severe drought, due to unseasonably dry winters resulting in dangerously low dam levels. According to the Office of the Mayor of Cape Town, as of mid-December, Cape Town’s dams were at around 33 percent capacity. “Day Zero,” the dystopian term for the date by which the city is expected to run out of water, will result in taps will be turned off and residents having to line up at some 200 checkpoints across the city to collect daily water allotments, with police and military deployed to monitor the situation. This will occur when the dams will drop below 13.5 percent, a projection that has been pushed back from its original date of April 16th to May 11th, then to June 4th, and most recently to July 9th.

From the day I arrived to the apartment I was living in, run by an environmentally conscious non-profit organization, their rules surrounding water usage were strict: First, Compost; Second, don’t flush the toilet unless absolutely necessary; and third,  always recycle your water The second rule in particular became an inside joke within our apartment, with the office even putting up signs or “cute” reminders that would remind us of the necessity of not flushing with every use.

Working in an office with other non-profits, especially one dedicated to planting trees, ecological consciousness was the first priority of the office vibe. Even when I was in my apartment, it was no different. Water was of the most importance. Every week, new regulations were placed by the city to remind us of the scarcity of water, and over time the language changed from severe to critical. Any rain on any days would be celebrated, even if it would get in the way of pre-set plans. I soon found myself washing my dishes in what was called “gray water,” which was later used to flush toilets and water plants. Showers were restricted to two minutes, including a timer in the bathroom and a bucket to catch water in to be recycled. All around the city the shortage was felt, with pools not opening for the season and water no longer served at restaurants for free.

As “Day Zero” continues to threaten South Africa’s second-largest city, radical conservation efforts have been placed, even to the point of urging tourists not to travel to the city until it surpasses the drought. This is both a political issue and a reality of global warming that is not exclusive to only Cape Town. Cities like Sao Paulo, Jakarta and Mexico City are each at risk of similar water scarcity in the upcoming years.

There are easy ways all of us can  cut down on water us to bring down your water bill and take care of the environment, like closing the tap when brushing your teeth or recycling your dishwater. Living in Cape Town has been a clear reminder to me that water is sacred, no matter how secure we think it may be in our specific city.