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Legally or Not, Businesses Stay Afloat in Cape Town’s Drought


Water World manager Markham Adams says some of his clients are amazed that his business continues to operate during one of Cape Town's worst-ever dry periods.

It’s a sight you don’t expect in Cape Town, where the city administration has threatened to turn off the taps because of prolonged, severe drought: children careening down gushing slides into pools of fresh water.

This is Water World, a fun park based entirely around … water, of course.

Manager Markham Adams says 12 years ago the owners found a water source beneath their feet.

“Our water we use in the slides is all well point water. It’s off the municipal grid; it’s been off for the last eight, nine years,” he says. That means the city allows the park to remain open.

Some enterprises that depend on water have closed in drought-ravaged Cape Town... but, surprisingly, not the Water World fun park.
Some enterprises that depend on water have closed in drought-ravaged Cape Town... but, surprisingly, not the Water World fun park.

In Cape Town, some businesses that depend on water either are finding their own sources, like Water World, or are struggling to stay open, as the city endures one of the most serious droughts ever in South Africa.

Some people are turning into water entrepreneurs by dodging the law.

Earlier this year, the city’s administrators imposed tighter water use restrictions, at one point urging residents to use no more than 50 liters of water per day — about eight toilet flushes' worth — to cope with one of the most devastating dry periods in the city’s history.

The drought had been so severe that the government predicted it would cut off taps by June. However, strict conservation efforts by residents and businesses, plus the onset of rains, has pushed what’s called “Day Zero” back indefinitely.

Still, the usage rules remain tight, and that makes earning a living tough for many people.

Car washes go on

At a filling station in a Cape Town suburb, police have arrived, threatening to shut down its car washing service.

But the owner tells a local news channel he has a license to wash cars using gray, or recycled, water.

“I find it extremely frustrating that legitimate businesses get continuously harassed in this manner, and nothing gets done about informal and illegal car washes blatantly using water in broad daylight,” the owner says.

Far from middle-class havens, in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township, Phillip Tatsi, 26, and his fellow street-side car washers say they are making do.

“When the rain is raining, we fetch water and we wash cars, even taxis,” Tatsi says.

But even without rain, Tatsi says, the sewers of the overpopulated shack land are always bursting with wastewater.

“That water, it flows every day, it doesn’t stop. We go there, we take the buckets and we take water. After [that], we go and wash the cars,” he says.

Black market for water

At an industrial zone on the outskirts of Cape Town, a muscular young man sweats as he packs a truck with containers of water.

He and his partner don’t have a license to sell water, but they transport their illegal cargo to buyers across the city.

He agreed to speak to VOA about his trade anonymously.

“A bucket [of water] is five rand [40 U.S. cents]; a JoJo [tank] is 150 [$12], then the last one now is 200 [rand] [$17],” he says.

He says he has a “contact” who works in a factory that legitimately uses a lot of water. Once it’s used, he repackages it and sells it to supermarkets as “pure” spring water, which, of course, it isn’t.

A tired woman buys 15 liters of the recycled water at a store where the men sell their wares.

“I voted for a better life in South Africa and having no water is not a better life,” she says. “I am sorry; I did not know that this water was illegal. But my family needs it.”

The woman says her family is too large to make do with the city council's water allocation, and she can’t afford to pay the fines for exceeding the household’s limit.

In Khayelitsha township, David sits with a group of men drinking beer and lounging on buckled white plastic chairs.

“We don’t get [handouts] from the government. We just hustle on our own,” he says.

David’s current hustle is to fill as many discarded canisters as possible at a tap shared by hundreds of people in his community.

On a good day, David says, he makes 200 rand selling water. That’s a lot of money for someone who’s been unemployed his entire adult life.

‘Water crimes’

But illegal entrepreneurs like David fuel the frustrations of many Capetonians as they struggle with the water shortage.

At community water points across the city, residents voice disdain for water profiteers.

One man complains that the profiteers fill drums of water, and slow down the lines at the taps, so tempers rise.

“Yo, too much conflict, too much conflict … because here in South Africa, they’ve got too much thief guys,” he says. And they fight each other, bringing violence to the tedious chore of fetching water.

A senior city official, Jean-Pierre Smith, says the local government is aware of “water crimes.”

Smith says his administration is under pressure to stop people from exploiting the four-year drought.

“We’ve been enforcing our own bylaws with everything from car washes to residents who are still hosing down driveways and washing out wheelie bins [trash receptacles] on the sidewalks and filling up swimming pools,” he says.

Pumps draw water for Water World water park from an underground source that's fed by a nearby river.
Pumps draw water for Water World water park from an underground source that's fed by a nearby river.

Legally or not, people in Cape Town have come up with ways to cope with the drought. Adams says that at Water World, now that the drought is really biting, mothers and their children often arrive in the early evening.

“They pop in here at about 5:30 and they’re in here for about 15 minutes and the moms jokingly say they’ve had their bath for the night!” he says.

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