It was gorgeous day on the KZN South Coast. The air was hot and humid, but a gentle breeze off the ocean cooled the skin and teased wisps of hair into my eyes. We had a fantastic view of the sea – we were yearning to be there, actually – but we were in a queue at a municipal water collection point instead.
This was because in November and December of this year, there was a water supply problem along this stretch of the coast. It wasn’t drought related – one look at our abundant leafy green surroundings put that question to rest – but rather, it was reported, due to an act of sabotage by disgruntled council employees, illegal labour action or simply, the crumbling infrastructure.
So there we were, on our December holiday, with only very sporadic water. For some reason I could never quite make sense of, it often came on late at night and then vanished by about seven in the morning. So we went to bed sandy and salty, but were able to grab a quick shower some days, if we woke up early enough.
Having experienced taps running dry first-hand, I am now in a position to comment on what it will be like if the same thing happens in Cape Town. Let me not mince my words: it is going to suck. You think you can wrap your head around what it’s like to live without running water in your household, but until you have actually lived it, you cannot fathom the multiple inconveniences you will face.
(This is a middle-class person’s perspective. I am aware that the challenges I faced on my water-scarcity-tourism experience are the realities that some people live with their whole lives.)
Every day, we went to fill two 20-litre cannisters at the collection point to flush the loos and for general household usage. And we’d buy a couple of 5-litre bottles of drinking water while we were at it.
We became enthusiastic proponents of the “if it’s yellow” ethos, and – my apologies for TMI, dear reader – even tried to synchronise our bowel movements as much as we were able. It was extremely disheartening to watch a third of our water cannister’s contents vanish down the U-pipe with every flush.
Toilet ickiness aside, the place I found it most difficult to be without running water was the kitchen. I’m a compulsive between-task handwasher. Just a quick little finger rinse under the taps sets my world to rights. Not being able to easily do this after, say, chopping an onion was distressing to me. The kitchen cloths, being rinsed less frequently, had also started to stink – and we were operating with a holiday home’s limited stock to start with.
We found little solutions along the way – a jug of water next to the kitchen sink, for instance – but even so, we felt that our levels of cleanliness and comfort were slipping. When the late-night water made its appearance, it was a huge relief to be able to wash away the sweat, salt, sand and sunscreen. But some nights, it didn’t come, and as a result our sheets became gritty and greasy.
But we made the most of it. We were on holiday, the weather was lovely and we were together as a family. Even the water collection was a daily adventure, and we got to meet all sorts of interesting people in the queue.
I did question our sanity on the last night, though, when our daughter developed a tummy bug. Was it viral, or was it the result of insufficient hand-washing in the house? We’ll never know. The three flushes worth of water we had in our cannisters were quickly used up on the times she managed to vomit in the loo. The last drips were used to clean the floor from when she didn’t quite make it.
The real low point was when she vomited into her hair – a great deal – and we had to hold her feverish head over a sink and try to rinse out the chunks in about an inch of water. My husband was dispatched to the collection point to refill the cannisters.
After the horrors of the night, the sun rose on the morning of our departure, and our child’s health was restored. We were glad to leave the coast, very much the wiser about our dependence on water and about the crisis that Cape Town faces.
Guys, if the taps run dry and you don’t have a backup plan, it’s going to be dreadful. You can only collect so much water at the collection points, and when you use it up and things go wrong, life gets disgusting fast. If you aren’t already doing your absolute best to limit your water usage and avert “Day Zero”, now’s the time to act. Shave your heads, wee in your garden, make prolific use of wet wipes. The horror is real; I have lived it.