For the second year in a row, I’m living in a disaster area. The difference, this time around, is that our small section of the country – the West Coast and Swartland – is now part of a larger disaster area: the entire Western Cape.
This time last year was different for another reason too: following an absolutely unbelievable summer (not in a good way), with rolling heat waves for months that sucked the moisture out of the landscape so that you could practically hear it sizzling, our reservoir, Voelvlei Dam (the only source of water for our town and many other settlements in these parts), had been depleted to the point where, at 20% capacity, it was at its lowest since it was built in the 1960s. As is the case with many dams, the last 15-18% is very difficult to utilise, due to heavy silt buildup – meaning we were down to our last 2-5% of usable water.
Things seemed dire then, but this year, as I write, Voelvlei is at 16% and there’s no imminent prospect of heavy rains. Dams around the Western Cape are similarly down to their last usable puddles of water.
Last summer taught us in the Swartland lots of things about living in a water-scarce region. People stopped washing their cars; garden-irrigation systems became a thing of the past (as did lawns), and grey-water buckets were put into all showers and basins for use to water specific plants; swimming-pools water levels dropped, and they turned green and sludgy under their covers. And, seriously, if anyone anywhere in South Africa was still leaving the tap running while they brushed their teeth, someone was needing to give them a big fat slap.
But here’s the thing: it wasn’t enough. And if we’re not going to face the same problem – and probably worse, and earlier – next year, we’ve got to get ahead of our water shortage.
Level 4 restrictions ask us to use just 100 litres of water per person per day. This is doable but it requires more than just being aware of the water we’re using: we actually have to make some genuine and lasting changes. Consider this: flushing the loo just twice a day (up to 30 litres), showering once a day for just 2 minutes (about 30 litres), and handwashing just one basinful of dishes (up to 30 litres), uses up almost your entire daily allowance, without taking into account water for drinking, cooking and laundry – which combined will definitely come to more than the 10 litres remaining in your personal daily quota.
So even if you think you’ve really been doing your bit to save water, you’ve got to do more – much more. And you’ve got to keep up your water-saving initiatives all the way through the coming winter, regardless of how much rain falls.
Here are a few things that I’ve been doing to save more water. I’d love to hear your suggestions too.
Direct your downpipe/s into the pool…
Swimming pools used for actual swimming are nothing but an indulgence at the moment, and will probably continue to be so through at least next summer (and maybe the next one), while we hope and wait for enough rains to fully replenish our dams. Working swimming pools require chemicals that usually render the water unfriendly for other uses, such as in the garden; and, more to the point, they need regular backwashing and topping-up, which uses water that’s desperately needed for much more important things.
For the foreseeable future, regard your swimming pool not as a recreational nice-to-have but as a vital reservoir of usable (if not potable) water. In order to maximise this, buy soft flexible plastic hose, cut it to the right length, and attach it to your house downpipes. This hose can be rolled up and stored out of the way when not in use, and unrolled when it rains.
The flexible plastic hose that feeds my pool when it rains runs out of sight at the base of a hedge up to the house, where it’s attached to the blue downpipe (next to my temporary outdoor shower, which feeds the plants on this side of the house).
… and use your pool water to flush the toilet
I predict that in time to come, in the same way as our kids now find it unthinkable that we had to be taught not to just throw our litter out the car window as we sped through the landscape, future generations are going to be amazed that we used actual drinking water to flush away our crap. Park a big watering can in your bathroom, and keep it topped up with water from your swimming pool for use for flushing. Untreated swimming-pool water can also be used to water a few chosen plants in your garden.
Use ‘grey water’ more carefully and not only for the garden…
Clean grey water (not containing detergents or other contaminants) can be re-used for other things than just watering plants, such as for rinsing salads and vegetables. Try to get as much use out of your grey water as possible before taking it out into the garden.
… and get used to dry-handwashing
If you’re a habitual hand-washer like I am, this is a tough one to get your head around But a running tap dispenses up to 30 litres a minutes, so it’s an inefficient way to keep your hands clean. Keep a waterless hand sanitizer next to your kitchen sink and get used to using it.
Wash bedding and towels less often…
If you’re a clean-freak like me, this is also a tough one. There’s nothing I’ve loved more than putting fresh, clean laundry on my bed every Friday but washing my bedding requires a washing-machine load on its own, and that uses up to 90 litres of water, even on an ‘eco’ cycle. To stretch your bedding another week, change only the bottom sheet, and turn the duvet over. For your pillows, put different-coloured covers on them, so that you make sure one is on top the first week, and the other is on top the second.
That goes for towels, too. If you used to wash them weekly, now stretch that to fortnightly.
… and that goes for other laundry…
My mother used to complain that my brother wore his jeans until ‘they could walk into the wash on their own’. Time to return to those teen years! Although obviously it’s not required that you wear clothes until you’re no longer fit for human company, everything (other than underwear, and outer items that get heavily soiled) can be worn at least twice before being chucked in the wash.
… and your body too.
Especially if you don’t work in a job that makes you sweat heavily or otherwise get really dirty, consider showering only every second day. On alternate days, do a thorough ‘top and tail’ (cloth-wash of your face and undercarriage).
Don’t make the mistake I did last summer and buy bottled drinking water, thinking you’re helping the situation – it takes double the water to make the plastic bottle than the water contained in the bottle. Rather, invest in a few 25-litre containers with taps, and hunt down a source of clean drinking water, such as a friend or family member with a borehole that pumps potable water (thanks, Tana!). Refill your containers regularly and use only this as drinking water.
Install at least one rain tank
Every single South African should be harvesting rainwater, however and in whatever quantity they can afford.
I’m using the bottles from the bottled water I bought last summer as additional storage – I fill them when it rains.
Spread the word and share resources
People often waste water without realising it, so share your water-saving hints and tips with your friends, family, colleagues and community. A little knowledge goes a long way.
If you have more water-saving tips, I’d love to hear about them!