To Survive Drought, California Should Learn From Cape Town

YouMy household showers every other day. We don’t flush every time. After a dinner party, I empty my guests’ water glasses into the houseplants. It’s been four years since I lived through Cape Town’s water crisis, but hard-earned habits die hard. Although my water conservation habits may seem overwhelming or borderline unhygienic at times, the danger of water shortages is real and they might be worthwhile to adopt.

Late 2017, Cape Town looked like it was about to become the world’s first city without water. This was due to bad water management and climate change. To stave off “Day Zero”—the moment when reservoir levels would drop below a critical threshold and household water supplies would be turned off—residents were told to limit use to 13 gallons of water per person per day. The average American consumes 82 gallons of water per day. This was sufficient for a quick 90 second shower, half-gallon water, one dish of laundry or dishes, one meal cooked, two hands washings and two toilet flushes. The watering of plants was not possible. It was because I kept counting down the water we used.

Fear was a huge motivator—the apocalyptic specter of having to wait in line at public taps for a daily allotment of 8 gallons of water per person once Day Zero hit was enough to drive most residents into immediate compliance. So was shame: households that exceeded their daily allowance were tagged with a red dot on the municipal water authority’s online map. We all looked at it obsessively.

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The municipal water use dropped by half within a month and it has been steady since. After seven months living with 13 gallons per day for 7 months, Day Zero was not achieved. The rains eventually returned and the reservoir levels reached a healthier level. Capetonians are water-savvy. Recent research by Martine Visser (director of the Environmental Policy Research Unit, University of Cape Town) shows that households still consume 61% of their pre-drought water levels. And even though I have since moved to Rome, a relatively water-rich city that runs drinking fountains 24/7, I still can’t take water for granted. I don’t shower in a bucket anymore so I can use the collected water to flush the toilets, but I still have the bucket, just in case. If I don’t have dinner guests, the dog’s day-old water goes to the plants instead. The sound of a dripping tap has the same effect on me as the Jaws theme song—it raises goosebumps.

Continue reading: What It’s Like To Live Through Cape Town’s Massive Water Crisis

Cape Town might have been the first city in modern times to experience water shortages within days, but that will not mean it is the last. According to the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, almost half the global population will experience “severe water stress” by 2030 as a result of population growth and climate change. This means that less water is available for food production. The United States declared water scarcity an issue of national security earlier in the month.

California is feeling squeezed as the west has experienced its worst drought for over 1000 years. In April, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California declared a “water shortage emergency” following the state’s driest ever start to the year. On June 1, the Department of Water and Power called for a 35% reduction in water use in my home town of Los Angeles, implementing draconian—at least for Angelenos addicted to lawns and car washes—water usage limits. The city’s 8 million residents are only allowed to water their lawns twice a week, for a maximum of eight minutes. I find it laughably inefficient to ask them to limit their time taking a shower to less than five minutes. During the Cape Town drought the city partnered with South Africa’s best musicians to record 120-second versions of their most popular songs so residents could sing along and get out of the shower in two minutes, without having to rely on a timer. Listen to Kate Bush as she runs up the hill in L.A.

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California’s future outlook for the long term is uncertain. Most of the state is suffering severe, extreme, or exceptional drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor; in 2020 climate scientists found that California is in the middle of a “megadrought” exacerbated by climate change and likely to continue for an indefinite amount of time. Given its high water consumption, Los Angeles could easily face its own “Day Zero,” says Jan Kürstein, a Danish hydrogeologist who was brought in as a consultant during the Cape Town water crisis. According to Kurstein, Los Angeles is well behind in communicating the seriousness of the situation. “In the case of a drought like this, you have to radically lower your water consumption.” Leaving lawns unwatered is not enough, he says, the city has to start thinking about alternative sources, like ground wells, desalinization, and reclaiming sewage. Cape Town didn’t start considering alternatives until it was too late, but California can learn from Cape Town’s mistakes. That may mean embracing the heretofore unthinkable—using treated wastewater for everything from watering lawns to taking showers and yes, even drinking. Namibia’s Windhoek, the world’s driest capital, has been recycling its sewage into drinking water for 50 years.

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has announced that it will recycle 100 percent of its wastewater to make drinking water. It’s a great start, albeit approximately 13 years too late. In the meantime, putting a higher price on water could be a good way to start saving it, says Kürstein. That worked up to a point in Cape Town—higher usage was taxed at a higher rate, forcing middle- and lower-class consumers to cut down to cut costs. The wealthy continued to water their gardens and use their swimming pools until the city instituted a household consumption cap. This was enforced with physical devices which automatically restrict water flow at a set point.

Of course, it’s not just because of a looming shortage that we should be conserving water. Even countries that aren’t at risk of drought should be making an effort. Energy is used to extract, heat, transport, treat, and transport water. Water is essential for the watersheds that store carbon and the lakes and rivers that support biodiversity and fish species. Is that to say everyone needs to start taking a bath in a bucket? It’s not likely. But it might not be such a bad idea to remember the old rhyme my mom taught me when California was going through a major drought in the late ‘80s: “If it’s brown, flush it down. If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” Your city might not be at the stage where every drop counts, at least not yet, but if anything, it’s a good reminder that water is too precious to just flush down the toilet.

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