Giving back

Many of us in Cape Town are trying our hardest to save water and adhere to the 50 litres per person per day limit imposed by the city council, and that’s to be applauded. But there is one family going above and beyond to help avert “Day Zero” when the city is set to become the first major developed city to run out of water.

This is their story.

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Etienne van der Merwe wakes up each morning at 5:30am.

“I don’t need an alarm,” he tells me, “I’ve always been the sort of person that likes to get up and go.”

Etienne and his family, wife Hentie, and children Johan (18) and Charlize (15), live in a small but comfortable house in Durbanville in Cape Town’s Northern Suburbs. As I arrive, I note the dying plants and brown lawn. Like the rest of the population, the van der Merwes have been affected by the water crisis which is currently gripping the city. Three years of low rainfall, coupled with an alleged lack of foresight by the authorities have left Cape Town teetering on the brink of disaster.

“It’s been very difficult,” says Etienne. “But we are very fortunate to have access to clean running water anyway. There are many in our country who would consider this a luxury. I want to try to give something back.”

And that’s exactly what Etienne and his family are doing.

Each Monday morning, before sunrise, the taps in the van der Merwe household are turned on, and a total of 1400 litres  – 50 litres per person per day – is decanted into a collection of containers and drums in the kitchen and porch, before Etienne sends his son outside to turn off the water main again.

“This is more than enough water to get us through the week,” explains Hentie. “We wash with a skoppie en waslap [a basin and face cloth], we share the water, we flush the toilet once a day using rainwater when there is any, or greywater [water that they have used for washing] the rest of the time. It’s hard work, you need to be disciplined, but for some people, this is everyday life. We can manage.”

“Since we started this routine, we’ve never run out,” Etienne tells me proudly. “There’s always some left over at the end of the week.”

Etienne and Hentie van der Merwe

Many of the city’s residents are equally active in their efforts to save water, but it’s what the van der Merwes do each Sunday evening that makes their efforts so special. I join them on what has become a weekly pilgrimage.

It’s 4 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, and the van der Merwes have just returned from the afternoon service at their local church.

“It’s important that we keep faith, that we believe God will right this situation,” says Etienne. “People’s livelihoods and our society depend on it.”

He’s in the kitchen, moving the empty pans, pots, bottles and drums to one side.

“See here. This week we have almost 80 litres remaining this week. This is what we are giving back.”

I help him and Johan lift two full 25 litre containers and a collection of old soft drink bottles into the back of their bakkie [a pick-up or ute], and climb in. Hentie insists that I sit up front with Etienne, while she sits with her children in the back. Etienne pulls out onto the suburban road outside their house and heads for the freeway. We’re bound for Theewaterskloof, the largest dam in the region with a capacity of almost 500 billion litres, set in the mountains about 100km [63 miles] north-east of Cape Town.

The traffic is light, but Etienne’s pick-up has seen better days and the drive takes us  over an hour. We stop just outside the farming village of Villiersdorp on a viaduct over the reservoir. The view is shocking: what used to be a picturesque body of water is now little more than a stream surrounded by sand. The viaduct is made up of 12 arches. Only the centre arches now straddle the water. The strong wind whips up the dust from the extended banks of the dam, forcing us to shield our eyes.

The Theewaterskloof Dam bridge

The family stares grimly at the scene for a few moments.
“Each time we come here, there’s less water and more sand,” Charlize remarks, sadly.

Etienne and his son are dragging the containers out from the back of the truck, and between them, they lift the first one onto the concrete barrier on the side of the bridge, remove the cap and begin to pour the water back into the reservoir below.
It’s not an easy task, and the wind blows spray back into our faces and onto the road, but Etienne and Johan persevere and most of the contents of the container end up in the water below.

“It’s not much,” he admits, “but it’s something. If everyone in Cape Town could come and pour some water back into the reservoir, it would fill it back up. It would make a really big difference. I’ve already started to promote the idea in my local community, but people don’t take this situation seriously. They laugh at me and they say it’s a waste of time and effort. But I believe that we need to work together. This is my contribution.”

Having poured the family’s excess water back into the Theewaterskloof Dam, we head back to the van der Merwe home, where I bid farewell to this extraordinary family who are going to extraordinary lengths to save their community.

Later, sitting in my hotel room in the city centre, I resolve to do my bit as well by not having my usual cup of tea before bed.
And I have to say, it feels good to be making a difference, and suddenly I understand just how the van der Merwes must feel every day.

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Story originally posted in UK Community Values magazine (January 2018).
Author: David Brooks.
Reproduced in full for the benefit of my South African readers. 

Day Zero moved back

As agricultural water use is throttled (and with all the implications thereof), Cape Town’s impending Day Zero has moved back almost a month to 11th May.

Interestingly, Day Zero is now described as:

The Day We May Have To Queue For Water

rather than the previous incarnation, which was:

The Day The Taps Will Be Turned Off

And there is obviously some debate as to whether this good news should have been announced. But if the City wasn’t to announce this, would they not be accused of scaremongering once the media got hold of the story. They tried to slip it out – there wasn’t much of a fanfare to be honest – but such is the massive public interest in the water crisis, it was never going to slip under the radar. But will this stay of execution now result in residents using more water as they see the problem as having been solved? Quite possibly, although it clearly isn’t.

As one twitter user (it was The Guru) quipped though, we’re still very much lost in the woods, and nowhere near out of them.

That said, it might all be sorted after the weekend, as the National Department of Water and Sanitation are motivating for a 3 day weekend of prayer and mediation [sic]:

Obviously, this will work and Day Zero will become just a dot in the distance. One wonders why they didn’t just do this before and save us all this bother. To be fair, I’d just settle for a 3 day weekend. They’ll probably argue that including Friday allows for Islamic involvement in the process, but the more cynical amongst us have surely already noticed that there is some rain in Cape Town’s forecast for Friday:

which might actually be a double bonus:

Looks like next week is party week. So lit fam.

We went to Theewaterskloof

Theewaterskloof being the biggest dam supplying Cape Town with water.
And we weren’t alone. Because Drought Tourism is a thing.

Some TWK stats for you from Wikipedia:
Total capacity: 480 406 000 m³
(for lovers of comparisons, that’s about 15 times the size of Ladybower Reservoir in the UK)
Catchment area: 500 km²
Surface area: 5 059 ha

Of course, that’s what it should be like. It’s not like that at the moment.

Theewaterskloof is divided quite neatly into 2 halves by the R321 bridge.

Most of my photos (link below) were taken from near the red dot (just left of centre) on the map above. Those of the dam wall and associated infrastructure were taken near the green dot (bottom right).

And while there is still some water in the Eastern (lower) half, the Western (upper) half is one big – very big – sandpit. Of course, we knew this before we headed out there, but it was still a wholly shocking sight and nothing (including my photos, I fully admit) prepares you for – or allows you to grasp – the sheer scale of what you’re confronted with.

What you’re looking at here is the only water in the “top” half of the dam. The water is about 100m wide at its widest point, and that sounds ok, until you realise that the far side of the dam is over 5km away. Aside from that 100m strip, it’s all just sand. And laterally, there’s almost another 6km to the left that should also be covered in water. But there’s none. Nothing at all.

And everywhere you look, dead trees. Usually they’d be submerged, but they’re high, dry and seemingly petrified. It’s weird: very disconcerting, yet also strangely beautiful.
It’s like every photo you’ve seen from the Namibian Tourist Board.

I’m not going to be like that “vlogger” and tell you how much water we’re “losing” through the outflow from the dam wall, and how the coffee and chocolate farmers of the region are “stealing” “Cape Town’s water”.
I’m not going to ask you how much water you’re using: if you’re in Cape Town, you should know that already, and if you’re not in Cape Town, then it really doesn’t matter to me.
And I’m not expecting my photos or words to effect any change in anyone. If you’re not panicking even just a little bit by now, too few blue pixels on a computer screen aren’t going to make any difference to you.

But even for a realist like me, it was a very sobering sight.

On a more practical note, photography was incredibly difficult. The light was completely overwhelming, there was nowhere high nearby to get a decent vantage point, and what should have been water is now just a wide open space with no landmarks to get any sort of scale or perspective.
Even the Mavic up at 120m struggled to take it all in. No wonder NASA used a satellite.

Theewaterskloof is very, very big, and it’s very, very empty.
Consequently, it’s my humble opinion that we should all be very, very worried.

Photos on Flickr here. Video to follow.
And hey, if you’re the guy who chatted to me on the dam wall this afternoon and asked where he could see my drone photos, you made it. Welcome!

Shrinkage

Cape Town is making the international news again. It’s not good news this time though. Even if, like me, you have a very dry sense of humour.

This gif is from some American fly-by-night organisation called NASA. I don’t know if they know what they’re talking about when it comes to science and stuff, but their informative webpage on the subject seems to suggest that we are royally screwed.

They quote from expert

Piotr Wolski, a hydrologist at the Climate Systems Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town

who:

has analyzed rainfall records dating back to 1923 to get a sense of the severity of the current drought compared to historical norms. His conclusion is that back-to-back years of such weak rainfall (like 2016-17) typically happens about once just every 1,000 years.

That’s some pretty spectacular extrapolation there. You’d think that you’d have to analyze at least 1,000 years before you could draw this sort of conclusion. But I’m sure he knows what he’s doing. He’s an expert, after all. Sadly though, much like Dr David Olivier, Piotr’s expertise will be ignored by those Facebook warriors determined to lay the blame for the water crisis at the doorstep of the City and Provincial governing structures.
They’ll point instead to a massively inaccurate newspaper article from 1990, and shared by a man who helped tell us that the chocolate and coffee farmers downstream of Theewaterskloof are stealing all “our” water.

Yeah. Not much thought went into that.

Elsewhere, The New York Times shares news from this shithole country with their shithole country:

 

The Daily Telegraph photographer should have turned off this tap:

And there’s a typically understated response from the Daily Express:

And you know things are getting SERIOUS when someone brings out THE CAPS LOCK key twice in a headline.

Speaking to the manager

As Cape Town is – once again – omitted from the plan for rainfall across the nation today, a local radio station has a request:

Well, yes, but we’ve tried that already.

It didn’t work then, and I very much doubt that it will work now.