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. 

4 thoughts on “Giving back

  1. A poignant gesture, but potentially ironic as the exhaust fumes from the drive exacerbate the climate change that allegedly play a part in this mess in the first place.

  2. Ami Kapilevich > It’s disappointing that they are making such an effort, and that their story is going international, but you can only find a negative in there. They’re trying to make a difference. Have a heart, sir.

  3. This is the most powerful anti-drought message I’ve seen since Growthpoint Property’s advisory to ‘only boil enough water for your requirements’. #Evaporation4TheNation

  4. Gareth > We use a dehumidifier in our kitchen to collect humidity from the kettle, dishwasher and any pots. This is a simple way of getting a small amount of clean, usable water from (almost literally) thin air.

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