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Cape Town Running Dry

How Cape Town, the ‘Mother City’, triumphed over the grandmother of a drought.




Some measures like not offering china cups helped to reduce the scullery load as restaurants sought to save water.

The Western Cape province of South Africa enjoys what is known as a ‘Mediterranean climate’. Hot Summers with clear blue skies give way to stormy, wet Winters. It is a Winter rainfall region, yet for three years running up to January 2018, very little rain had fallen.


Southern Africa had been in the grip of a devastating drought. In other parts of the country, maize crops failed while the vineyards and wheat fields of the Western Cape Town were threatened. Some provinces declared emergencies and rallied to help farmers with financial aid and deliveries of feed or water tankers. 


Cape Town held was doing ok, until particularly bad rainfall in 2016 and 2017 caused dam levels to drop alarmingly. By late January 2018, average dam levels in the region had fallen to 25% of capacity. Water saving campaigns had, until that point, met with little success from complacent citizens. Now disaster loomed. 














Day Zero


The city took a deep breath and embarked on a campaign to radically curb water use by citizens. They called it ‘Day Zero’. The day on which dam levels fell to 13,5%, the taps would be turned off. At that critical level, the city would supply water only to essential services. The public would have to queue at designated water points for daily rations of 25 litres. 


A city of four million souls would come to a standstill on Day Zero, initially pegged as April 12, 2018. Images of dried-up, empty dams and queues of people waiting for water were splashed across local media. Electronic signs along main roads into the city displayed the number of days left until the water ran out.


The aggressive campaign with its Doomsday tone was linked to a raft of radical conservation measures. Heavy users of municipal water were penalised though steep tariffs, water use for such indulgences as pools, lawns, washing cars was prohibited. A new water pressure system was installed, and an online usage map allowed people to compare their water consumption to their neighbours’. 


As the realisation of impending disaster dawned, Capetonians leapt into action. None were more energetic than restaurant operators. Certainly, the city’s administrators must be commended for their decisive and innovative role. However the eateries where citizens gathered  to socialise or work flew the banner and led the charge in the civic miracle that followed.


Restaurants were aware that without water, they would be unable to trade. If supply was restricted to essential services such as hospitals, it would be disastrous for operators and their staff. As social media lit up with conversations and tips around saving water, restaurateurs became strident voices.




Restaurants up front


Menus were altered to be water-wise. Boiled or blanched ingredients were diminished, or that water was reserved for cleaning or flushing. Waterless hand sanitisers appeared in bathrooms along with makeshift signs requesting that people only flush when absolutely necessary. 


Condensation from air conditioner outlets and melt-water from ice buckets were collected for washing floors. Patrons were asked to drink from bottles and cans rather than glasses to save on washing up. Recyclable or compostable, single use plates and cutlery were introduced as the quest for savings widened.


Customers were exposed daily to these clever, practical responses to the crisis and their chatter inevitably turned to water conservation. They took ideas they saw working in their favourite eateries to implement and home. Instead of Instagramming their breakfasts, any new innovation or idea was snapped on a phone and disseminated on social media.


There were the moaners: “Can you believe I was just charged for a glass of water…” Who were quickly shut down and often ridiculed by practical voices online. Food chat groups carried the message of saving and sacrifice for the greater good into the homes of privileged suburbanites, and the tide turned.


A popular Facebook group about Cape Town restaurants, with over 40,000 members saw lively debate on all suggestions for water saving. Restaurant owners or managers would bring ideas for saving water or managing usage among customers to the forum. Related issues such as the soaring cost of fresh produce due to the drought were also raised to be quarrelled over as awareness spread. 


It wasn’t always pretty, but the heaviest suburban users of municipal water woke up to some harsh realities. Within a month of the Day Zero announcement, residential consumption was down by 30%. The city pushed back their predicted cut-off date by two months as usage continued to fall.


Citizens took pride in recording how they got by on just 50 litres a day. Others set the benchmark at 25 litres, crowing about their success on social media and challenging peers to do better. Some became aware for the first time of their impact on the environment through consumption. And in the cafes, in the diners, in the queues at the coffee hatches barely another topic was discussed.









A lesson learnt 


Now, over two years beyond the first mayday call, the city has survived. The largest drought-induced municipal water failure of any metropole in modern history had been averted.


Average winter rains starting in June 2018 saved the day, but so too did the determination of the people of Cape town to survive. A lesson was learned, and despite the dams being full again, citizens continue to use water responsibly. 


The makeshift A4 paper signs taped to bathroom walls have been replaced with permanent signage. Guests are reminded the Western Cape is a water-stressed region and asked to use water sparingly, to choose a hand sanitiser rather than soap and running water, showers rather than baths.


The city too continues to work at an issue that will continue to challenge every city on a planet ravaged by climate change. Sources of municipal water are being bolstered with water recycling, desalination, and groundwater. As water crises develop worldwide. Cape Town stands as an example of how administrations and citizens can unite to create and conserve resilient water infrastructures for cities.


Cape Town at dusk: A metropolitan city of over 4 million inhabitants faced the total failure of municipal water supply early in 2018.

A raft of notices from the city inspired radical saving strategies that were implemented and shared through restaurants and social media to radically curb water use.

Years of drought depleted dam levels, in some cases rendering them completely unusable due to heavy silting. The average dam capacity for the province fell below 25% in January 2018.


Restaurants, the places where city’s the middle class gathered to eat and chatter contributed to and 80% reduction in water use in the city over 3 months.

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