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A look at the current crisis and how Capetonians will adapt

Tim Nelson
January 30, 2018

Even with the ongoing threat of climate change, the idea that a major city would have to adapt to life without tap water still feels like something out of a dystopian novel. In Cape Town, South Africa, that scenario is less than three months away from becoming a reality. With it will come vital questions about how communities eat and drink when a resource many of us take for granted becomes scarce. 

After several consecutive years of severe drought and a population that’s swelled almost 80 percent in the past 25 years, the six dams that supply the Western Cape region with clean water are now less than 28% full. Municipal officials now believe it’s likely that they’ll have to cut off the tap water supply in most residential areas and institute mandatory water rationing within the next three months. With the city continuing to miss its water reduction goals, that date has already moved up from April 22nd to April 12th in the last week. 

Once that “Day Zero” happens, Capetonians will have to collect their daily ration of 25 liters of water from one of 200 designated supply locations guarded by South African police and military personnel. To forestall that scenario, residents will be asked to curb their daily water usage to 50 liters starting February 1st, less than the amount used during a five minute shower on a low-flow showerhead. Given that the average American uses somewhere between 80-100 gallons of water per day, these restrictions necessitate tough choices when it comes to all aspects of daily life, especially in the realm of eating and drinking.

For starters, locals are recycling what little water they use for cooking and making due without past creature comforts. The same starchy water that boiled potatoes for dinner is now often repurposed for bathing or household chores. Using these vessels to save water— or more, cynically, hoarding it from taps— has become so widespread that anything that can ostensibly hold water is flying off of store shelves.  Meanwhile, a morning ritual as innocuous as making a cup of tea have come under fire, because you should never bathe yourself in leftover Earl Grey.

In addition to utilizing the same water for everything from prep through dishwashing, some restaurants have modified how certain menu items are cooked and even axed hydrophilic dishes entirely. “We have taken pasta off our dinner menu‚” Carl Van Rooyen, executive chef at the Vineyard Hotel, told South Africa’s Sunday Times, “no more boiling of anything‚ it is all steaming and frying and deep frying and shallow frying.”  Other dining establishments have taken to reusing water from ice buckets to mop floors and even asking customers to bring their own water. 

At least one local group has used the dire circumstances to scheme up ways to cook without fresh water entirely. Studio H, a “culinary-minded experience design” group, worked with Netherlands-based Salt Farm Texel to develop a versatile range of vegetable-based foods that can be irrigated with salt water. The end result was “S/Zout”, a recent Cape Town popup where 50 guests (symbolizing the upcoming 50 liter limit) dined on dishes like cabbage chips and salt-baked ostrich fillet, washing it all down with seawater-based beer. While it’s not going to prevent Day Zero from happening, Studio H head Hannerie Visser tells Quartz that the current situation as an opportunity to plan for the future: “It’s a fantastic springboard for us to start a conversation about challenges in the food system and to approach the water crisis from the standpoint of a solution.”

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While the rest of the first world looks to move away from bottled water, it’s become an indispensable part of daily life in Cape Town. Stores have had to put limits on bottled water purchases, as the desire to drink clean water that won’t count against daily rations is widespread. Government officials have also encouraged companies to step up production in an effort order to keep up with exponentially greater demand. The African National Congress, which currently rules South Africa’s national government but is a minority at Cape Town’s municipal level, also called for brewers and soft drink makers to cut back on production, emphasizing that “we need water, not sugary and alcoholic drinks.” 

Speaking of alcohol, the impact of the drought won’t just be felt locally. Most of South Africa’s vineyards are concentrated in the Western Cape, and drastic reductions to the area’s water supply will take a toll once grapes are harvested in February and March. “Wine grape producers’ water resources were cut by 40 percent to 60 percent and they could not fully meet their vines’ water demand,” Francois Viljoen of VinPro told Reuters. That’s bad news for a country that ranks seventh globally in wine production and normally exports more than 400 million liters each year

While Cape Town is working nonstop to launch desalination plants and tap groundwater to create additional supply, there’s no telling if anything short of full compliance with the new 50 liter limits will be enough to stave off Day Zero. At the very least, Capetonians probably shouldn’t make plans to enjoy a romantic pasta dinner with a bottle of local wine this Valentine’s Day. The rest of us would be well-served to examine our own water habits so we’re ready when—not if—something like this comes to pass in our own backyard. 

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