On the Frontline of Climate Change

Gaynor Grace
Friday, 15th February 2019

Water is a commodity that companies 'own' and control. Climate change is creating worldwide water shortages. Gaynor Grace tells us what really happens when a city is running out of water.

I live in Cape Town, South Africa, and in 2017 our city almost ran out of water. We had three consecutive years of abnormally low rainfall and our dam levels sank lower and lower. Our water restrictions became progressively more severe until we were limited to 50 litres per person per day. The city halved its water consumption but still the dam levels dropped. Our city managers created the concept of ‘Day Zero’ – the day when the dam levels reached 10%, the city managers would cut off the water supply and we would have to queue to collect water. We were suitably horrified at this apocalyptic scenario and saved even more water. 

In January 2018, we were informed that Day Zero was unavoidable and that we must ‘assume the brace position’. Suddenly people were fighting over bottled water in super-markets as citizens scrambled to stock up in preparation. When we realized that the sewerage system was likely to fail within a few days of the water being turned off, composting toilets became a normal topic of conversation. Then we realized that the safety of the food supply was likely to be compromised if food handlers didn’t have water to wash their hands. 

The point at which I really became scared was when I realized that Cape Town would probably run low on fuel if Day Zero occurred, since our oil refinery is dependent on purified water from the sewage system. We were faced with imminent social collapse and it was terrifying. 

Then a group of farmers donated ten million cubic metres of water from their private dams to the City of Cape Town, pushing the date of Day Zero back. We watched the video of life-giving water gushing into our dam and were teary-eyed with gratitude. Then the city managers redid their calcula-tions and pushed Day Zero back further. Somehow it was pushed back again and again until our winter rains started falling, and we had good rains and the dams filled up again. We were left reeling and dazed from our brush with apoca-lypse and knowing that we would never again take rain for granted.

What I Learnt

Individual efforts were important

What made a difference in the drought was the ability of individuals to cut water consumption so drastically that we were able to eke out our water supplies until good rains fell. Social media played an important role in this, with people sharing water-saving tips, ingenious homemade water-saving devices and the best place to buy a composting toilet. Individuals co-operating for the greater good played an essential role in bringing us through this crisis.

Our local government made a lot of mistakes, but they did play an essential part

They were slow to react to the crisis, made unrealistic promises they couldn’t fulfil, and our mayor had a tendency to scold us like naughty children. However, they did add value by enforcing water saving. They set progressively harsher water restrictions with punitive costs for excessive usage as well as the installation of water limiting devices for those who didn’t comply. These devices had a reputation for being somewhat unreliable, sometimes cutting water off for days at a time, so avoiding their installation was a powerful motivating factor in saving water! Many people reduced water usage voluntarily, but government intervention was essential in forcing compliance from those who would not have done so voluntarily. 

You can cut back more than you think

Our water usage prior to the drought was about 15 kilolitres a month. At the height of the drought we managed fairly comfortably on 4 kilolitres a month for five people – that is less than 50 litres per person per day. Every time the water restrictions were tightened I would wonder how we could possibly use any less, and then somehow find ways to reduce further. It made me realise how intrinsically wasteful the Western lifestyle is and how much we can cut back on consumption and still be comfortable.

Permaculture solutions are very relevant 

When I was concerned about a shortage of fresh foods if Day Zero came, I set up some wicking beds with vegetables and bought seeds to make sprouts. We set up rainwater tanks and a mini-wetland system to recycle greywater. Composting toilets or dry toilets were the preferred solution if the sewerage system failed.  

It’s not all doom and gloom

New heroes arose and inspired us, and humour sustained us. While some folks were fighting for water in the super­mar­kets, others were arranging water donations to pet shelters and retirement homes. There was a sense of camaraderie, much laughter, and beautiful acts of generosity and sacrifice.

There will always be deniers 

Some people in Cape Town denied that there was a water shortage and claimed that Day Zero was a plot concocted by the local government to raise water prices and get kickbacks from buying desalination plants from Israel. This despite photos of empty dams posted by citizens, records of rainfall, official dam levels and satellite photos of the dams. Some folks just aren’t happy without a conspiracy theory.

Extinction Rebellion has it right 

Once I grasped the extent of social collapse likely to occur if the city ran out of water, I was prepared to do whatever it took to prevent it happening. If Extinction Rebellion takes off in South Africa, I might just be among those super-gluing themselves to buildings in the hope of preventing wider societal collapse due to climate change.

Extreme Water Saving Tips

This is how we managed on 50 litres per person per day:

  1. Monitor water usage closely by writing down water meter readings daily. 
  2. Turn off the water supply to the toilet and only use greywater to flush. You can fill the cistern with greywater manually or pour it directly into the toilet bowl as a bucket flush.
  3. “If its yellow, let it mellow. If its brown flush it down.” To prevent smells while letting yellows mellow, spray bleach or other disinfecting agent into the toilet bowl.
  4. Waterless hand sanitiser can replace washing hands some of the time, but it must contain 60-90% alcohol to be effective. 
  5. Put a plastic basin in the sink to catch water when washing hands and use to water plants. I kept the little enclosed garden next to my bathroom alive with water from hand washing. 
  6. Shower while standing in a round basin to catch greywater and then pour it in a bucket to use in the toilet or garden.
  7. A bucket wash uses the least water – all you need is half a bucket of warm water and a facecloth. Alternate days where you have short ‘navy showers’ with days where you wash with a bucket.
  8. A gardening pressure sprayer filled with warm water can be used as a minimal shower – they were selling like hotcakes during the drought.
  9. Greywater must be used within 24-48 hours otherwise it stinks and becomes a health risk. 
  10. If you put rectangular plastic basins in the kitchen sink you can use the washing-up water in the garden as long as it is not too greasy. 
  11. Fill a spray bottle with soapy water and a spray bottle with clean water and use to wash dishes with minimal water. 
  12. Washing machines use a lot of water. Try to use the lowest water level setting possible and wear clothes like jeans for more than one day before washing. Top-loading washing machines use more water than front-loaders but have the advantage that they can be filled manually from a rainwater tank. 
  13. Drought gardening: At the height of our water restrictions we were not allowed to use municipal water at all for our gardens. I only used succulents and waterwise plants as ornamentals. When I planted out something like rhubarb I dug a large hole, put in lots of compost as well as waterwise crystals (polymer that absorbs water and releases it slowly) to ensure that it did not require frequent watering. I used greywater on fruit trees, ornamentals and vines, but for hygiene reasons couldn’t use it on vegetables and herbs. Wicking beds watered with rainwater were the best option for growing herbs and vegetables.

Two Main Criticisms about our Methods

They involved a lot of plastic; buckets, basins, wicking beds, rainwater tanks, drinking water containers. (Some people installed plastic grass when their lawns died. Ugh!) We made eco-bottles enthusiastically to try to atone, but perhaps there are more environmentally-friendly alternatives to the plastic we used.

Our methods were fairly labour-intensive and involved much carrying of heavy buckets. Automated systems could be designed that pump greywater from the shower onto the garden, or from the washing machine into a storage container and from thence to the toilet cistern, and a couple of enterprising folk in Cape Town did indeed set up systems like this. 

Water-saving Devices that Helped

Squeezie bottle. This simple gadget came into fairly widespread use during the drought. A hole is made at the bottom of a plastic water bottle and a straw or a piece of thin tubing inserted. Silicon can be used if necessary to make it watertight. As long as the lid is on, water does not flow out, but if the bottle is squeezed, a squirt of water is released and if the top is unscrewed, a stream of water flows until the top is tightened again. It works especially well with a pop-cap bottle. This is a good way to wash hands if there is no running water.

Greywater recycling system he idea for this came from Rentia Robbertze, who created a working model to water her indigenous plants sensitive to greywater and shared the details on our water-saving Facebook group. 

I made a system based on similar principles. It consists of three water-tight planters with a hole drilled in the lower third of the container and plastic tubing inserted. A third of the container is then filled with gravel, then bidim cloth placed over the gravel, then planted out with reeds and potting soil and lastly with a layer of gravel so that there is no standing water for mosquitoes to breed in. They are set at sequentially lower heights, with the greywater pumped or poured into the top planter, exiting through the tubing to flow into the next planter and from there to the third and final planter, then into a plastic tote with an aquarium pump that pumps the water up again into the top planter. (The pump must be strong enough to lift the water to the top of the highest planter. The height to which a pump can lift water is usually noted in the specs.) There is also a tube to take overflow water from the tote into another tote. The water circulates continuously through this system, remains aerated and is filtered by the reed beds. Greywater is slowly added to the system and removed from the overflow tote with an aquarium pump into a bucket when enough has accumulated. No special soaps or washing powders need to be used. 

The water that is produced by the system is slightly brown from humic acid, but clear – the reed beds remove the soapy compounds. The water also doesn’t smell bad after a day or two as greywater does. The nurseryman that I bought the reeds from said that some Koi pond owners were using a scaled-up version of this with reed bed ponds to filter greywater to use in their Koi ponds, since they could not top up with municipal water.

Wicking beds used what I had on hand, which was large storage totes. I cut 40mm (1.5in) PVC pipe to fit the length of the container, drilled holes in the pipe, placed an endcap on one side and an elbow on the other and attached another length of PVC pipe to it. I drilled a hole about halfway up the side of the tote and put a small length of tubing in the hole. I put a layer of gravel on the bottom of the tote, put the PVC pipe on top of the layer of gravel, then added more gravel until just covering the overflow pipe.

Then I put bidim cloth on top of the gravel and then potting soil with a high organic matter content, and then bark chips as mulch. Water is poured into the PVC pipe through a funnel to fill up the reservoir, overflowing through the tubing when it is full. It requires topping up with about two buckets of water once a week. I use an organic liquid fertiliser as a soil drench once a week and every few months I flush out the system to ensure I don’t get build-up of fertiliser. So far, I have grown kale, spinach, celeriac, baby marrows, spring onions, basil, mint, coriander and parsley in wicking beds and they have all done exceptionally well.

Water Saving Tips for Everyday

1. Low-flow showerheads and tap attachments work well and require a minimal outlay.

2. Catch the water from the shower while it is warming up in a bucket and use on the garden. 

3. Try a ‘navy shower’ – stand under shower to get wet, turn off shower, soap up, shampoo hair, then turn shower on to rinse.

4. Rainwater tanks are worthwhile installing but the installation must be done properly and include a leaf-catcher as the water exits the gutter and a closed tank so that mosquitoes don’t breed. 

Gaynor Grace is a general practitioner at a local practice and provides health services to the inmates of Goodwood Correctional Centre. Before she studied medicine, she completed a degree in agriculture, worked as a WWOOFer and trained in permaculture. She hopes someday to combine her interest in medicine and love of plants by working as an integrative practitioner offering the best of herbal and mainstream medicine.