The Water Crisis Diaries: Some day this will go in a novel… part 1


It’s Monday afternoon and I’m looking up how to shit in a bucket.


Not the logistics of it – that’s obvious enough – but how to continue defecating in a bucket for months on end without getting sick. (Use double thick black garbage bags, the article warns. And make sure you pour disinfectant and sawdust over it between goes).


It’s less than three months before Cape Town runs out of water and I’m still trying to imagine what it will actually be like.


We’ve been in a state of drought since I moved here, with water restrictions growing constantly more severe. The most recent are to use less than 50 litres of water a day per person. Unfortunately, reports say only 40% of people followed the last restrictions (87 litres), so imagining that we’ll all comply is pure fantasy. What will happen if we don’t? Four to six months of no water while the government brings desalination systems online and taps into our underground aquifers.


My Facebook feed is split in three: a) people angry with the government, b) people sharing water preservation and survival tips and c) posts from friends across the country – or across the ocean – who live in an alternate universe where water is not an issue.


I’m hovering between b and c. I want to fly away to somewhere else more than anything. The theme of birds has been coming up in my art, travel has been coming up in my dreams. On the stress response spectrum, I’m definitely a “flight”. But at the same time, I want to be prepared. So I keep reading articles about preserving water or surviving in a post-water city. Which is how I find myself getting an education in bucket poop.


Many people poop in buckets, I reason. Nelson Mandela managed for 27 years and a large portion of the South African population still lives in shanty towns where their only source of water is a single communal tap. If they can manage, I can manage.


And, as with all bad experiences, I remind myself that this is great research for a novel.


Initially I thought things would start getting interesting the week before the shit hit the bucket as it were, but when we went to get groceries early yesterday morning there was this strange somber vibe I’ve never seen at that shop before. I thought that I was imagining things until we snagged the very last two bottles of water. Today I saw that people are already fighting over such bottles in the stores. With over two months to go.


So, I guess now is the time to start making notes. I’m not sure if this will be interesting to anyone else. A part of me feels like it’s a bit melodramatic – I’m Jake Sisko reporting from a station under siege! (I’m sorry if you don’t get that extremely geeky reference). But hey, my memory is terrible and maybe these notes will be useful for Future Me.


The first thing I have to note is it’s not all doom and gloom. Us South Africans are known for our dark sense of humour. This is Mad Max: Cape Town. Someone thought they saw a SandWorm on the N1 (it was the Cobra). Those who control the Jojo Tanks control the city. (This last is quite literal. Inflation on those things is about 300% right now and there’s a waiting list).


But there is a lot of anxiety too. Some friends won’t go on social media because they start freaking out at the encroaching sense of doom. My mom tells me she’s in a “cocoon” where she’s just focusing on work and watching series. I think there’s a general disbelief that this might actually happen. Before it seemed like hollow threats, like the government would pull some last minute Thing that would save us and we’d come away from this with a lesson learned about resource management.


Now it’s feeling more like we might be the lesson.


I’m staring resentfully at the sky outside the window now. It’s supposed to be raining today but the heavy clouds hover above the mountain, silent and still. I’m setting appointments in my calendar, but at the back of my mind, I’m wondering whether I’ll even be here.


Life plods on as normal. People continue as if nothing has changed, but there’s this undercurrent. We’re all thinking about the water. It shows up in our Slack channel, it’s what they talk about in the kitchen. Everyone’s staring at the sky, like I am.


At work, the GM is meeting with the landlord about boreholes and portapotties. Businesses can’t stay open if you can’t use the loo. I’m wondering if they’ll let me fly away, or if I’ll have to take unpaid leave – or quit my job to escape. I’m wondering if I could stay.


The government plans are a mess. They said that they’d have 200 collection points when the taps run dry, which is next to nothing. A single point can’t service 5,000 people, no ways. An old politician wrote a column on a website this morning about other plans involving grocery stores, but they’re not really plans so much as vague ideas.


With less than three months to go, we don’t really have any idea what Cape Town will look like after Day Zero.


There’s this movie I love called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. One day, NASA discovers a giant asteroid heading to Earth. There is nothing anyone can do to stop it. Everyone will definitely die. The movie follows the characters on a road trip showcasing how different people deal with certain death.


The water crisis is not certain death. Day Zero will not wreck the whole world.


But there are parallels in psychology, in the cycles of denial and acceptance, in the polarizing nature of disaster. The knowledge that there is a day approaching when everything will change and, short a Bruce Willis flavoured miracle, we will all be living very different lives.


Like in the movie, I think Day Zero forces us to face ourselves.


We grapple with belief. Not in a religious sense – although maybe that too as people pray for rain and it continues to not arrive. I mean, believing that the day is approaching, believing that the press is not lying to us, that the government is not taking us for a ride, and conversely that, if we choose to believe, we’re not giving into panic and being needlessly dramatic.


Because there are no solid plans, because we’ve never been here before – we’re the first major city that has – it’s hard to picture it.


Walking up the stairs to our apartment, everything is normal. A TV is blaring, the birds are settling down for the night in the surrounding trees. Someone is cooking onions. I know that if I wanted to I could easily pretend that the fear was only in my imagination, that social media was sending me into a needless spiral of dread. There is nothing stopping me from having a hot shower, no one would arrest me if I filled the bath to the very top and threw in some bubbles for good measure.


I can see now how so many people come to deny climate change. It’s because it’s scary and uncertain and it’s difficult to picture that something so huge is right around the corner when, right now, the individual days are no more remarkable than the ones that have gone before. I wouldn’t be surprised if those are the same people who are still watering their gardens and washing their cars and drawing those lovely deep baths. They’re also subject to flight, but in a different way from me: they’re running from the truth. And when the taps go dry, they’ll likely be the first to run from the city.


It’s difficult not to feel angry. At them, at the government. I hate feeling angry about this kind of thing, because there’s nowhere useful to direct that anger so it bottles up and I end up lashing out at the wrong people, in the wrong ways. The only thing we can really do at the moment is hope and try to save as much water as possible.




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