(Update as of February 15th, 2018): Since this post was published in late January, the City of Cape Town has dramatically reduced its water consumption to the extent that forecasts now predict that we will make it through 2018 without any water supply outages. We will continue to follow this story and share further updates. The following contingency plans will remain in place in the increasingly unlikely event we encounter municipal water shortages.

You have likely been following international news coverage of the drought in Cape Town. We would like to use this post to give you both a local perspective on the story and share the plans we have in place to support VACorps interns in the event of any disruption to the city’s municipal water supply.

We are currently entering the 4th year of a drought cycle in Cape Town and this has been one of the longest drought periods in the city’s history. Cape Town has what is referred to as a “Mediterranean climate”, whereby our summers are hot, windy and dry and our winters are cool, temperate and rainy. The winter rains normally arrive in May and give us 5-6 months of predictable rainfall that fill up the dams and rivers that provide the city with its water supply. Yet starting in 2014, due to much lower than normal rainfall, our dam levels have been steadily dropping.

At present, there is a major public awareness campaign underway to encourage residents and businesses to reduce their personal water consumption to 50 liters of water per day and the effects of the campaign are visible everywhere throughout the city. At Virgin Active, the most popular gym franchise in South Africa, you are asked to take a bucket into the showers with you and the captured water is then handed to cleaning staff who fill the toilet cisterns to recycle the water. The gym showers also have a 2-minute timer and water levels in the swimming pools are low because they are only filled up with captured rainwater. Upscale restaurants in town have removed soap dispensers with waterless hand sanitizer and most office parks and business have installed waterless urinals. Everyone on the VACorps team has become very adept at catching rainwater and showering with buckets! All citizens are playing a role in reducing consumption, which is very inspiring from a community perspective.

Whether our collective water saving efforts will save the day is difficult to say at this point. We have been told by our local government that is possible that increased water savings could get us through to winter without interruptions to the municipal water supply. We still have another two and a half months of guaranteed water supply left and in addition to the city’s large-scale water-saving efforts, the activation of water “augmentation” projects that include new desalination plants, the drilling of aquifers and unexpected early rainfall may further help us to avoid our taps running dry. With that said, rather than play the waiting game, we would like to share our contingency plans with you.

In the event we do encounter a period of municipal water shortages, the VACorps team will be here to support you and ensure that any inconveniences will not impact your overall internship program experience. Our housing provider, Rent-a-Room (RAR), has water supply plans in place in the event the city’s municipal water supply is shut off for a period before the winter rains arrive. The following RAR action plan will be implemented in the event a municipal water supply shortage:

  • Water for drinking will be delivered to each property during the week.
  • Each house is having a rainwater and storage tank installed. In anticipation of a possible shut off, plumbing will be installed so that the stored water can be diverted into the house to supply water for showers and washing machines. If participants live at a house that does not have a rainwater tank connected to your house, there will be a hand-pump shower for use. These are efficient and only use a maximum of 5L of water.
  • One of the RAR properties has a swimming pool that will be refilled by a scheduled water delivery. This will act as a backup reservoir in the event the municipal water is shut off. The volume is 85,000L, which provides all properties in the RAR network with a 2-week supply. RAR has contracted a company from Stellenbosch to deliver our backup water supply.
  • RAR has a 1000L water trailer that will be used to deliver water to the properties on a scheduled basis.
  • The RAR cleaning staff visit all properties every Monday through Friday. Participants do not need to worry about any sanitary or health concerns regarding the use of a backup water supply and the kitchen and toilet facilities are cleaned on a daily basis.

If there is a municipal water shortage, the city has indicated it could last anywhere from a few days to a few months. However, we anticipate that personal water use restrictions of 50L per person per day will likely remain in place throughout the year, so you will need to be prepared to become very water efficient, take quick showers and only flush the toilet when necessary. We would also like to emphasize that municipal water shortages will not pose a health or safety risk to your living conditions.

If there are any water shortages in future, many of our internship sites have said they will remain open for business because most organizations already have backup water contingency plans in place. The water supply to the city’s central business district and industrial areas will remain on throughout the drought because these areas are deemed critical to the local economy. Many sites also have an independent water supply (boreholes) and do not rely on the grid. If you work at sites that must close due to water outages, we will be on standby to provide quick replacements.

The Cape Town water crisis is the result of the occurrence of a very unlikely natural disaster that appears to be the result of global warming and climate change. South Africans, and Capetonians, in particular, have historically proven themselves to be very adept at working together to overcome adversity.  While the city comes to grips with the possibility of water shortages, a general attitude of “we will get through this together” prevails.

The news coverage in America assumes that life will grind to a halt and we will all spend our days standing line waiting to collect our meager water rations. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The shutdown of our municipal water supply does not for a second imply that the city will be without water. The reality is that our enterprising community has created an entire micro-industry around the water crisis.  Water is readily available for purchase and delivery, and while residents might have to go without their daily bath for some time to come, no one in Cape Town is going to go thirsty, and few businesses will have to close their doors because of this crisis. In addition, Capetonians have become incredibly skilled and adept at coming up with innovative solutions for saving water and capturing rainwater. Most people have a plan in place and both VACorps and RAR will be ready for any interruptions to the municipal water supply come April.

All VACorps participants who travel to South Africa this year will be subject to a real-world learning experience of resource-constrained living and you will likely have your perceptions changed as you come to terms with the intrinsic value of water. You will be participants of the city-wide effort to overcome this challenge that nature has presented us and will depart the program with an appreciation for how water can be better conserved at home (FACT for participants from the USA: Americans consume more water per capita than any country in the world, averaging 80 – 100 gallons / 300 – 400 L per day). While the City of Cape Town appears to be the first global metropole to feel the effects of climate change to this extent, it will certainly not be the last. As and when we emerge from this crisis as the most water efficient city in the world, anyone who travels to South Africa this year will never again take this precious resource for granted!

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