The Water Crisis Diaries: Shit gets real

“Well, my darling, I’m glad we’re not in the same room,” my dad says when I answer the phone. I can hear the smile in his voice when he adds, “because you haven’t showered in a week.”

“Longer,” I say, and I laugh as we start discussing bucket washing techniques. He’s in PE – up country, but also experiencing a drought. He wanted me to know that we’re welcome there if we decide to leave Cape Town. They have at least one water supply line that won’t run out, he says. And they’ve had rain in the past week, which we have not. I heard it drizzled somewhere nearby, but the dust caked on our windowsill says that it hasn’t done that here.

Tomorrow the new restrictions come into effect, the ones that forbid us using more than 50 litres of water a day per person. For perspective, that’s less water than many washing machines use for a load of laundry. In reality, most of us have started living according to those restrictions already. Everywhere you go, the walls are plastered with signs telling us not to flush for just pee, and an infographic from a local news site giving a breakdown of exactly what 50 litres of water can get you. The bathrooms now have hand sanitisers and wet wipes instead of soap dispensers. Even my doctor was using hand sanitiser when I went to see her this morning.

“Are you going to stay in Cape Town?” I asked her, after we’d discussed the general rise in anxiety cases she’s seen, and how impending doom is not a healthy state of mind.

“That is a tough question,” she said. “My husband isn’t South African so he wants to leave. But for me…” she shrugged. “My job.”

Oh, I can related. If it weren’t for my job, or if my job allowed me to work from home, I probably would go to PE. Even if it is a “colonial” thing to do. But the economy needs us. Businesses don’t want to shut down, so they’re doing everything they can to stay open and keep their employees here. Even if the employees face losing all quality of life outside of working hours.

My work sent out an email to staff today outlining their continuity plans for after Day Zero, which is currently projected to be mid-April. It boils down to this:

  • There will be portapotties
  • There will be drinking water (brought in in bottles and rationed)
  • There will not be dish washing (so bring cutlery etc from home)
  • There will likely be paper cups and plates
  • HR and IT are looking into longer term plans in case it comes to that.

Less than an hour later, shit literally got real when the water pressure to the office complex got cut off. When I left work just before lunch time, they were waiting for the portapotties to arrive as there was not enough water pressure to flush the toilets (and the upstairs toilets had stopped working completely). I don’t know if this is related to the February restrictions and thus likely to be the new normal, or if it was a temporary measure and we’ll have toilets again at work before Day Zero. Either way, it’s a taste of things to come.

At the moment, the home toilet is working as normal. But for how much longer considering we’re also on the second floor?

People are starting to panic. The grocery stores can’t keep up with the demand for water. Since the government’s “plan” for doling out water rations after Day Zero makes zero logistical sense, Cape Townians are stockpiling. Graham went to the store to buy some things the other night and said that there were piles of 5 litre water bottles stacked everywhere. By the next morning, when he stopped in to get something for lunch, they were gone. He saw one woman trying to take 40 litres worth of water in a trolley and she needed shop assistants to help her. The stores have now placed limits on the amount of water to be purchased per person. In the office kitchen, when people used to discuss diets and babies, they now discuss where to find water.

On our community Facebook group, someone is trying to raise funds for a communal borehole that everyone in the area can share. But the government is placing restrictions on tapping into the underground water reserves too now, so who knows if it’s even feasible.

It seems that to the rainwater gatherers go the spoils. But there’s a gigantic waiting list if you want a water collection tank installed, and there’s no rain anyway.

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