What It’s Like to Live Without Water in Cape Town

Residents are taking extreme measures to cut consumption during a record drought

By John Viljoen / BLOOMBERG

To SHOWER in 90 seconds or less like a local in Cape Town, you need a plastic basin to stand in — a bucket’s just going to lead to wastage — and, preferably, a hand-held shower.

Capture any water you run before the shower reaches a decent temperature in your basin, then quickly wet yourself before turning off the faucet.

Soap up and clean before turning on the water again. If it’s a hair-washing day and you haven’t made the switch to dry shampoo, skip the “repeat” bit after rinsing.

Irksome at first, these steps have become routine in recent months as we save and re-use every precious drop of water in our beautiful, but parched hometown. Capetonians have been told to keep daily water consumption to 50 litres (13 gallons) a person. A long, luxurious bath can use four times that much.

Viljoen and his family save every drop of water for re-use

I’m quite proud that in our household we’ve got it down to around 30 litres, with the water from those 90-second showers harvested in buckets and deployed for the toilet and to keep a few favourite plants alive. The last time my wife or I took a bath was three months ago, when we were abroad.

Confronted by the worst drought on record after years of disastrously low rainfall, city authorities said they may have to turn off the water entirely on May 11, the famous “Day Zero”, if reservoir levels keep falling and consumption doesn’t slow enough.

That has sparked panic buying of water.

Supermarkets have varying limits on how many five-litre-bottles of water shoppers may buy — when there is any to be had.

Friends have installed tanks to capture and store water on the rare occasions when it rains.

Because we recently moved, we’ve been left behind on this front. A distributor I called last week said he had none in stock and the waiting list was so long that he wouldn’t even take an order.

The small washing machines for campers that my wife has been coveting have all been snapped up — you can’t get one anywhere in South Africa. Our family wash takes place once a week, on the 15-minute cycle.

Residents are sharing pointers on how to live with the drought on social media, with the “Water Shedding Western Cape” Facebook group boasting more than 154,000 members.

Advice dispensed in the forum in recent days includes dealing with kitchen drains that are turning smelly because of the little water flowing through them, and which supermarkets have those sought-after five-litre bottles in stock.

A resident stockpiles water containers after filling from a public spring

Members of the group compare notes on how much water they have stockpiled — the results range from zero to 20,000 litres. There’s handy guidance on how to build a system that gathers used water from your washing machine and the lowdown on the latest rules on using water from boreholes, an increasingly popular option.

The drought has devastated gardens in Cape Town, but boosted the popularity of fake grass.

A lawyer friend is among those who’ve replaced their entire lawn with the verdant, artificial alternative.

Our water crisis has driven invention and innovation: Two Bloomberg colleagues have invested in contraptions typically used to spray insecticide, but that are now catching on as high-pressured, water-efficient showering devices.

My sister is about to start renovations and will use water from the swimming pool to mix cement, the city having forbidden the use of municipal supplies for this. My in-laws stand in long lines at the natural spring in the suburb of Newlands, clutching their outsize containers.

And you don’t even want to know about the measures being taken in homes and at schools when it comes to using the toilet.

Waterless hand sanitisers have become a concern for health professionals

We’re becoming worried about the potential for illness as the water shortage drags on. Nandi Siegfried, a doctor friend who is an expert in public health, told us over dinner she is gravely concerned that disease could spread as people wash their hands less and staff in restaurants rely more on waterless sanitisers, which may not be as effective.

Our hoped-for winter rains are still about four months away. A decent deluge we were promised this past Friday night was a disappointment.

My friend Luke Stevens measured just 3mm in our suburb, barely enough to quench our lemon tree’s thirst.

We’ve got our 25-litre containers ready should “Day Zero” arrive and we have to collect daily rations from 200 planned distribution points around the city. We desperately hope it won’t come to that, because it promises to be hellish and chaotic, turning work, school and home life upside-down as we line up for hours every day.

We’ve adapted a lot during this drought, but perhaps the most important change is that we’ll never again take water for granted. It’s just too precious.