South Africa’s seaside city of Cape Town is mired in a three-year drought and is poised to become the world's first major city to run out of water. The city will shut off municipal taps on "Day Zero," which is projected to be July 9.
But for many residents of the city’s sprawling, low-income townships, water has always been a rare commodity. Cape Town resident Welekazi Rangana says she’s struggling to understand how some residents of this seaside town are chafing under tight new water restrictions.
Ever since she can remember, she has treated water as a precious resource, and not by choice.
She has never, in her 53 years, taken a shower. That’s because her government-provided home in the impoverished Khayelitsha township does not have an indoor bathroom - much less a dishwasher or washing machine.
For years, she says, she, her husband, child and grandchild have bathed in the bedroom using a shallow bucket that holds about eight liters of water.
More than half of the four million residents affected by the city’s harsh new water restrictions live in Khayelitsha township. Like Rangana, the average township resident has, for years, used just 50 liters of water a day, according to official figures. That’s the latest target set by the city to avert “Day Zero.” Rangana says she doesn’t understand how her richer neighbors are struggling with that.
“It’s been not sitting right because [for] a long time, they were the ones who used the water, [and] we are the ones who were not wasting the water,” she told VOA. “But now, it doesn’t matter; now, if we were looking after water, now it’s all of us, we are in the same, like, now they are in our shoes,” she said.
No water, no income
Rangana neighbor, Ntombikayise Dondi, says the drought and water restrictions have hit her hard. She used to have a flourishing home garden. Now, she’s down to three wilted lines of spinach and some sad-looking cauliflower.
“This garden makes me cry, because I used to feed my family with this garden,” she said, surveying the brown, wilted plants.
In previous years, she even grew enough to sell her bounty, which allowed her to buy what, in this neighborhood, is a major status symbol: a washing machine. Now, it sits idle and she spends four hours per week washing her family’s clothes by hand.
Scientists are still studying the cause of Cape Town’s predicament, though they say climate change is a likely culprit for the drought. But the city is also unusually dependent on rainfall, relying on three, rain-fed dams for all of its water. Three dry years have depleted them, but hydrologist Piotr Wolski of the University of Cape Town says the last drought at the turn of the 21st century has made the city fairly water-wise.
“Water demand is very strongly related to population growth,” he said. “And the population of Cape Town has grown, from what I’ve read, by 30 percent since 2000 until now. Yet the water demand hasn’t grown. So that campaign of reduction of leaks and demand management has compensated for the increasing demand that would result from the increasing population,” Wolski said.
But in Cape Town’s more affluent areas, residents are worried. At several sites in the city, residents already can fill up for free - up to 25 liters a person - at local springs. After “Day Zero,” the city plans to set up 200 public water collection points.
“We always used to just take water for granted,” said 70-year-old Cape Town resident Jean Gordon, as she and her husband collected their water. “Now we know what it is to struggle.”
She says she’s had to make some unorthodox adjustments to cope.
“Shower less,” she said. “Sharing, sharing the shower with the husband.”
But in poorer areas like Khayelitsha, where many residents have long relied on public taps, the parallels to the unfair apartheid regime are hard to ignore, says local activist and volunteer Mpumi Mhlalisi, who works with the Western Cape Water Caucus.
“The upcoming struggle now,” he said, “will not be a struggle for freedom, but a struggle for water.”