Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 7 February 2018

Water, the final frontier: A visitor’s foretaste of Day Zero

If you think road rage, racist outbursts, school pupils and varsity students fighting among each other are isolated incidences now, wait for Day Zero.

This December holiday I drove the family down to the Mother City, acutely aware of the water restrictions and water shortage/crisis experienced in the entire Western Cape province. The twins, Tessa and Ayanda, were asking numerous questions about the do’s and don’ts. What do we do if we do a number one as opposed to a number two? The usual mantra from me and the wife came – if it’s yellow it’s mellow, and if it’s brown, flush it down.

This is the reality of the citizens of the province currently and for the foreseeable future.

If, as will happen, there is no water in May/June 2018, what will actually happen? Is there a contingency plan in place for when “Day Zero” arrives?

As we entered Beaufort West I instructed the twins to buy 4×5 litres of water and several litre bottles for the road ahead. Complete extortion, I thought when I had to pay. Government will have to regulate the price of bottled water as we enter the coming months, lest our people simply get exploited by private sector service providers in this hour of need.

In fact, when we visited friends with a swimming pool, I learned that they and others were buying extra water from a service provider from the Grabouw area. Chances are they steal it somewhere and sell it elsewhere – yet another thing that requires intervention by the provincial and national tiers of governments.

A number of practices took some time to get used to, like taking a two-minute shower or catching your shower water in a bucket to be used later in the garden or to flush the loo.

A visit to my mother I always look forward to, because she will invariably prepare an egg and steak sandwich for her oldest son. But as she was preparing this most anticipated sandwich she suddenly left everything in the kitchen and dashed to the bathroom. Concerned, I followed, asking what was wrong. It turns out she had heard from the kitchen that the washing machine (which had been going) was about to release its second rinse and she had to make sure that the bucket was in place to catch that water, hence the dash. She explained that the first rinse cycle water was too soapy and hence could not necessarily be used as greywater.

All these interventions require some level of discipline from citizens. Yet as I was driving through the township streets of Delft, car wash facilities abounded and everyone was going about their business as if there was no water crisis. As someone explained to me when asked about this, “as long as water comes out of that tap, there is no crisis as far as we are concerned”.

Among my middle-class friends, all efforts are being made to save water. Boreholes in some yards, Jo-Jo tanks in others, pools are storage tanks with the collected water being used for the garden and for washing the car.

The contrast is rather stark.

Yet, despite the experience, I could not help but be struck that despite all I had learned over the two weeks in Cape Town, once back in Gauteng my behaviour returned to normal.

My wife took the car to be washed at the local car wash. I had a nice long shower with no bucket. None of the water saving practices we had become accustomed to during our two-week visit to Cape Town were being implemented in my home because there is this unscientific belief that we are not having the same water problems and therefore have no need for such interventions.

This of course is false, to the extent that the entire country is water scarce. South Africa generally is going to experience this crisis in due course. I have previously agreed with the assertion that because of this frontier, we probably will have to annex Lesotho in a few years simply because we are going to increasingly be dependent on the water supply and resource from the Lesotho Highlands Dam and mountain range.

It is my understanding that the Americans are already in a tight relationship with our Basotho neighbours. Are we seeing this matter of water scarcity as a national security concern? In the field of International Relations and general Global Political Affairs, it has been a long-held position that the next wars will be fought because of scarce resources – and primarily around water.

Another dimension that no one is talking about in Cape Town and the province is the very personal security threat of Day Zero. If you think road rage, racist outbursts, school pupils and varsity students fighting among each other are isolated incidences now, wait for Day Zero.

We have already observed the fighting and tension at the Newlands Spruit, as individuals come with more than their allotted 25-litre bottles and monopolise all the available taps to fill three or four bottles, supposedly for others that could not make the journey.

The 200 water points and their respective locations being spoken of should Day Zero arrive have as yet not been identified to the public, resulting in anxiety. Options of involving the National Defence Force throughout the province had better be entertained and planned for. Coupons for water is perhaps another option because this is not the time for thinking that if you are rich you can get more because you have the money. Yes, if you have money you can take the family out of the province on an extended holiday for instance, but skewed water allocations based on rates and taxes will go down like a lead balloon.

Then there is the matter of our number twos. I need not remind anyone that failure to be able to remove human faeces from our numerous toilets will result in all manner of diseases and I hope that the provincial government is already making sure that there are stockpiles of the necessary medicines should such an eventuality occur.

Last, the dodgy and murky politics surrounding the planned desalination plants to be built along the coast must also come to an end. On the one hand we hear that the DA government wants to give such contracts to people who will charge the City and arm and a leg, I believe something like R40 per litre while the ANC in the province argues that they have people that are tried and tested and can provide water for R12 per litre. I, like many others, don’t know who to believe, but one thing is clear for all of us, and that is that life is not a matter to be bargained with.

So, to the politicians we say, shame on you if you want to further exploit the people of the province in this dire situation. Stop thinking of the next general elections next year and start with compassion and Ubuntu.

Continuous education from a young age is required if we are to change our behaviour with regards to water and energy saving mechanisms. The same goes for climate change awareness and the fact that we must all do our part, not to deny these very real changes in our environment but to embrace it and plan, plan, plan for it.

So, as the old adage goes, charity begins at home and it’s my family and I who must change our behaviour if we are to see a very real change in Mzansi. DM

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"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine

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