South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: To Cape Town, with Love

Op-Ed: To Cape Town, with Love

This letter is for that moment when the water delivery through pipes into your houses stops. It may be tomorrow, it may be in two weeks, it may only be next year, but it is probable that it will happen and your people need to be prepared. By JEFFREY BARBEE.

Dear Cape Town,

I love you, your shores of white sand, your clean city streets, your mountains bedecked with the rarest of plants and the most ardent of hikers. You are the Mother City, home to some four-million and more souls, mostly living in what the rest of us African urban centres call pretty good style. But there is shadow about to befall your shining city in the fairest Cape, one that I know well.

Like it or not we live in interesting times,” Robert Kennedy once said to your people in 1966. He did not intend that old proverb as a blessing.

You see, my beloved Mother city, I have been damned by climate change and population growth too. We both had simply too many humans, too many baths, too many cars to be washed and too little rain, regulation and control until it was too late.

We stand across the Cape of Africa, two thousand 2,000km away on separate shores, but our problems are the same.

The long-term solutions to our water shortages are clear: plan, reduce, recycle, maintain, address climate change, and have hope. But for this week, this month, tomorrow even, there are real ways your people can start preparing because this problem is not going to be washed away with a few good rains.

Our dam water catchment areas, yours the Theewaterskloof and mine the Libombos, are exposed to some of the most severe climate change on Earth. Unstable dam levels are any city’s worst nightmare, and one that our children, our people feel the most severely. So now it is to your people that I speak, for they can learn from mine who have borne the struggle of water shortages for years.

This letter is for that moment when the water delivery through pipes into your houses stops. It may be tomorrow, it may be in two weeks, in may only be next year, but it is probable that it will happen and your people need to be prepared.

Buy water storage tanks for your homes; most Maputo homes have water storage systems linked to both the roof run-off and mains supply, so when water gets turned on for a short time they fill up. If it rains, they get the same. When the taps go dry, these tanks can be filled by municipal delivery in trucks. No tank? No water. It’s as simple as that.

Most homes in Maputo use a tank like the ones you can see here. Buy the biggest one you can afford but don’t get greedy, this is an emergency not a chance to maintain your luxury garden. Got extra money? Buy three and give two to people less fortunate, your disparate people can use this crisis to come together and build a stronger community.

Maintain some form of basic water purification in your houses, as dams get low the minor pollution in them and the distribution system builds up. It is a simple fact that if dilution is the solution to pollution, concentration is dangerous for hydration.

Bottled water is expensive and unnecessarily polluting. Use a ceramic or other store-bought filter if you can afford it, if not, a bucket of real charcoal (not briquettes) can save your family from water-borne illness.

Set up a drip through the charcoal like this one but bigger, using a double bucket into your drinking water tank, separate from your main storage. The charcoal will remove most pollution and if you change it every few weeks most water-borne illnesses. In a water-scarce area diarrhoea is not just a pain in the rear, it’s a killer.

Have a swimming pool? You are one of the lucky ones. When water shortages hit my people in Maputo our affluent swimming pools were a valuable source of community water for washing hands, cleaning bodies and especially flushing toilets.

This is a good guide to understand how to use that great resource in your backyard, but probably best not to drink from it unless you have a reverse osmosis-filtration system for your home. Keep the pool covered, it reduces evaporation and prevents the need for more pool chemicals than necessary, since they break down in sunlight. Use a dedicated bucket to take out the water and use it only for that. Keep that water clean, stop swimming in it, don’t wash your hands in it directly.

Flushing your toilet is a big opportunity for water saving; if its yellow let it mellow but flush down if brown and you will stay healthier. Put the shower water you used in a bucket into the back of your loo. On a new loo set the plastic tower with the bobber to the lowest setting to save water for flushing. In an old loo, put in a sealed water bottle full of sand to reduce the amount of water used per flush.

Speaking of showers, there is a way to get clean without washing your hair that uses only two litres of water: stand in a bucket so that you can pour it in a cup over you, and what comes off of you into the bucket goes into the back of your loo. Soap up, use soap, and then rinse it off, super easy. Wash your hair only twice a week, you will be surprised how much healthier your scalp feels.

Wash your hands with antibacterial soap, before every meal and definitely before handling any food. If you can afford one, use a spray-bottle system over your grey water tub that helps prevent water loss, like these.

Don’t wash your car, that’s just rude.

Have household plants you simply can’t do without? Choose which ones will live, and water them with the shower water that doesn’t fit in the loo. Remember that most Cape plants can go dormant for weeks, even months, without water – they will live. If they don’t, replace them with your fabulous local and water-wise fynbos once the rains return. Stop all watering completely if you can, and keep your extra grey shower water for emergency use.

The people in poorer areas of the city might weather the initial crisis better in some ways because many have been living without adequate water or sanitation for their whole lives. But soon they will need everyone’s assistance to help address severe water scarcity, including water storage tanks, water purification systems, and the simple shortage of personal and communal cash resources that make it possible to buy your way out of crisis.

Millions of people will need help. It’s hard to store water if you can’t afford somewhere to put it, harder still to wash your hands if you can’t afford soap, and impossible to stop the spread of disease if you have no sanitation. Make no mistake; whatever happens in the sprawling townships will eventually land on everyone’s doorstep, so help your neighbours out daily. It is probably your most important job.

My dear Mother City, this crisis is a chance for everyone to come together, to support each other, to be humane and kind. Robert Kennedy knew that 1966, like today, was a pivotal time. He went on in his address to your people at the University of Cape Town to say that these may be “times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history”.

That famous speech, said to be his best, was forever afterwards referred to as the “tiny ripple of hope” address.

You have been called unequal, even privileged. But I am your Indian Ocean Princess and you are my beloved sister on the Atlantic and this is your chance to be a shining example of creativity and inclusiveness. So I am sending you this letter as a tiny ripple of hope of my own from the eastern shore of Africa.

Take heart my sister, if we can do it, so can you. DM



Jeffrey Barbee is the director of, an independent not-for-profit environmental and scientific reporting initiative investigating stories for the world’s media. paid for the journalist’s travel and accommodation.

Join their facebook page:

Follow him on twitter:@jeffreybarbee and @allianceearth

Photo: Maputo by Jeffrey Barbee


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