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Day Zero: when Cape Town's taps are turned off

Sleet in Tokyo, 0 degrees Celsius, possibly colder in my north-facing apartment. Opened tap and warmed hands under running water until I remembered where I'm from. Cape Town. A city without water. They will run out of water ... soon, April, perhaps sooner, and there I was, indolently watching water spiraling down the drain.

South Africa: rich in natural resources, poor in water. Japan: zero natural resources, So Much Water.

I took these two photos of the Theewaterskloof Dam in January 2017, when there was still some water left. Now there's virtually nothing.




Capetonians have been asked to limit their water consumption to 50 liters a day. Here's how it breaks down:


Only a minority is currently following these guidelines. The rest: ignorant or selfish or stupid or all three.

"I can get my head around drinking water: you transport it by truck," I told my family. "I understand that you can do a hospital bath with Wet Wipes instead of a bath-bath. I accept that laundry isn't really necessary: a few sweat stains won't kill you. What I can't comprehend is life without a modern sewage system. What do you do if you can't flush toilets? Long drop in your garden? Go medieval and chuck it out of your window into the street?"

(Terloops, ek het pas, in 'n oomblik van suiwer nostalgie, die Kindle-weergawe van Oom Kootjie Emmer gekoop. When I was a child, we visited my grandmother in Kamieskroon in Namaqualand. That was years ago, long before Google and washlets, when the village still relied on chamber pots and long drops and night soil removed with the help of a small donkey-drawn cart. Don't laugh. Japan still has squat toilets. OK?)

Anyway. "What do you do about sewage?" I ask my sister. "Dry toilets," she says: a waterless chemical toilet that is often used at campsites.

"It's all very exciting," she adds, applying that dry, mocking, irreverent, so very South African humour that I was raised on. "It's all very exciting: we can't wait to see all the new engineering solutions." Meantime, she says, there are "water entrepreneurs" in the coastal village where she lives with her family. It's mainly a resort town with a very small permanent population. Houses are empty and outdoors taps are unguarded. So they come: the "entrepreneurs" who steal water, transport it to Cape Town and sell it at a massive profit. More lucrative, my sister says, than the booming illegal trade in abalone. (Once again we can thank China for destroying Africa's wildlife.)

Cape Town's crisis is complex: a three-year drought, uncontrolled urbanization and population growth, ugly national vs provincial politics. Yes, they're building desalination plants.

You remain the most beautiful city in the world, Cape Town, and you will always be the city of my heart. I hope the rain comes soon.



PS: Port Elizabeth, where my other sister lives, now also has water restrictions. Today, one year ago, I was in PE with my sister. And a cheetah.

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