If its yellow, let it mellow. If its brown flush it down: Memories of Cape Town’s Day Zero

By Raramai Campbell 

Picture of Cape Town. Photo by Patrick Ward on Unsplash

In June 2018 I landed in Cape Town, South Africa to visit my aunty. It was in an airport toilet cubicle that I saw it, in neat official looking print: “If its yellow, let it mellow. If its brown flush it down”. It was my first sign of a city under siege. I remember staring at it, the fact dawning on me at how much water a single flush used and how it could potentially save. 

From the car as we drove past traffic, I saw an urban landscape that was drier, browner and dustier than usual. The metal roofs of townships and the polished gates of private compounds seemed to shine in the heat and yet, only when my aunty pointed at a strangely bright patch of green that the full gravity of the situation clicked: “His lawn’s made of plastic now, to cut down on water.” She was referring both to her neighbour’s new artificial grass and the new water restrictions to stall Day Zero. For Capetonians, this was the name given to the day the city dam’s capacity would dip below the critical 13.5% and the municipality would be forced to shut down water to the nearly four million  residents. For a city that relied on the dam as its primary source, Day Zero began to take on an almost apocalyptic quality of a ‘point of no return’ where if reached, only essential services like hospitals would be covered. 

Cape Town was on the precipice of becoming the first major city to run out of water…  

The crisis stemmed from three years of poor rain, drought and a dated water infrastructure system that was fracturing under too much pressure. Climate change and poor crisis management had joined hands in a deadly omen for the future. The implications of limited access to water are vast, it affects health, sanitation, hygiene and well-being through communicable diseases like diarrhoea. In times of water scarcity, people often resort to alternative water sources which can be troubling since its safety may not be assured. In fact, half of the annual 842,000 WASH-related deaths globally stem from drinking unsafe water. 

The sign in the airport cubicle and the new landscaping decisions were the smallest changes that took place in Cape Town during this period. In the city, beneath the shade of trees along the roads by collection points and natural springs, were ques of people, each armed with massive drums and ‘jerry cans’ (water containers). “They’re waiting for water,” explained my aunty. To understand this, it’s useful to know that the upkeep and management of the city’s water systems are not paid for by the national government but by the city itself. Like the rest of the country, the ‘tiered block-tariff  billing system’ means that the more a household uses, the steeper the price increases, with those that pay higher prices subsidising the deliveries to lower-paying households. 

Besides campaigns, water prohibitions were part of the city’s response where those who used too much water were penalised and nonessential use was cut down, making water for swimming pools and gardens a thing of the past, even water for crops was limited. Perhaps most pressing became the daily limit of water consumption for residents. Over time, as rain remained distant and dam levels dropped, so did the daily allotment of water. By September, months after I was gone, it was said to be 50 litres which is the UN’s lower threshold for domestic use. It made me wonder how city authorities went about measuring water consumption for townships and communities without household water infrastructure and raised questions on the ethics of restricting access to a human  right. 

From my aunty I heard that residents were told to stock up on water, a near impossible task for  many because even if you were financially able, shop shelves had run dry. Water had quickly and  disturbingly become an even more luxurious commodity. For those who could afford it, bottled water and water trucks became an option. For the majority, they had to join the already staggeringly long queues at dawn. This became another case where the most marginalised and vulnerable bore the brunt of the crisis. 

Strict restrictions seemed to in part push back Day Zero while people looked towards the sky and  prayed for rain… Lunchtime conversations had begun to centre on the weather: from speculations of rainfall to the amounts needed to fill the reservoir. The dam’s capacity was everyday knowledge and everyone, seemingly in a matter of months, had become an amateur meteorologist. This was but one example of the incredible community spirit that sprouted from this crisis. In the early days of 2018 when the crisis began, Cape Town’s water consumption was chopped in half owing to a radical shift in public behaviour. Fear of running dry had made water into a precious thing. Each drop was carefully considered and as my aunty admitted, recycled several times. 

What made the situation in Cape Town all the more dire, was the lack of suitable alternative water sources that didn’t rely on rain. Day Zero and the rising risk of water scarcity marks a need for urban planners to diversify reliable sources and make plans for existing vulnerabilities. Since my visit, I’ve read that Cape Town is trying to reduce its vulnerability through underground aquifers, desalination plants, chopping trees to save water and irrigation. 

Cape Town’s Day Zero is but the first warning to cities under pressure to review how they can reliably provide their residents with an essential human right. This may involve a grand rethinking in resource management and how cities commodify water as a resource to be sold rather than a public resource to be delivered. Ultimately, the lessons taken from this crisis will determine if that little sign at Cape Town International Airport will become the norm across cities and not the exception.

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