An environmentally aware Kommetjie family of four thought they were doing a good job of conserving water by keeping their consumption to between 15 000 and 20 000 litres a month – but that was before the advent of Day Zero.
Since the severity of the water crisis was announced in January, the Dowling family have now cut their water consumption to just 6 000 litres a month. This works out to 50 litres a person a day for each of the four-person household.
The Dowling family is one of many thousands of middle-class households across the city who continue to save water as if Day Zero were hovering close by, instead of having been pushed out to next year.
While the City of Cape Town’s water statistics show that Capetonians have never managed to cut consumption to the 450 million litres a day the authorities require, – the lowest they reached was 492 million litres – Dowling believes there has nevertheless been a mind-shift among middle-class households after the drastic wake-up call in January when it was announced that the city’s taps may run dry.
“One of the positive spin-offs of this drought is that people, who probably did not think about water much further than their taps, are now aware of things like catchment areas and dam levels and where the water comes from, and also that there is an urgent need to conserve it,” Dowling said.
Since the recent May rains, which swelled dam levels from around 20% to 30%, there has also been a slight increase in Cape Town’s collective water consumption, which has gone up by 5.8% from last week. But Dowling does not regard this as a substantial increase, adding that consumption has always fluctuated a little.
“It shows that people are still saving. They are still flushing toilets with grey water and so on, not being lulled into complacency by the recent rains. I think more people are realising that the future is uncertain weather-wise, and there are no guarantees.
Change of attitude
“There are new rainfall regimes being predicted by climate scientists, with rainfall predicted to fall from around 600mm to 350mm in Cape Town in the future, so I think more people realise we need to take long-term views and act now.”
Water usage, since Level 6B water restrictions came in, has fluctuated – from 565 million litres used on March 18; to 516 on April 8; 542 on April 15; 492 on May 7; 554 on May 14; 505 on May 28; and 529 on June 4.
How did the Dowling family cut their water by a third?
Essentially, it was a change of attitude.
“The drought brought on the immediacy of the need to conserve.”
Dowling said, long before the Day Zero scenario, he had had a 5 000 litre rainwater tank installed, and smaller tanks at other downpipes from the roof.
These fill up fairly quickly, as every 1mm of rain falling on 1m2 of roof, yields one litre of water.
But before the urgency of the Day Zero scenario, Dowling admits that they had not used their rainwater tanks optimally.
“Basically, we used the rain water for the garden and washing cars or windows and things like that, but we were still doing a lot of toilet flushing, and baths and showers were longer. We were also using the hose for the garden.”
‘It was not rocket science, just took a bit of effort’
Now they never use the bath or the hose. All showers are short, and the shower water is collected for the garden or the toilets. He put displacers in his 12-litre toilet cisterns and bent the stopcocks so the water would shut off before it reached 12 litres. They use only grey water or rainwater to flush, and have drastically reduced the number of flushes.
They don’t use the dishwasher, unless there is an occasion with lots of people, and wash dishes in half a basin of water and a quarter basin for rinsing.
They have put the washing machine on to a more efficient cycle.
Two big changes were that, instead of using the rainwater tanks mainly for the garden, they now use them for toilet flushing as well. They have also put down a lot of mulch to keep the moisture in the soil.
“It was not rocket science, just took a bit of effort. A lot of people are doing more and I know of households that have got consumption down to 3 000 litres a month.”
Dowling said the Day Zero scenario had presented a good opportunity for his family to put into practice all the water saving methods they had not been using with any sense of urgency.
“Before, we were all getting the first 6 000 litres free and the restrictions were not so severe. Day Zero did help change behaviour, which I think will become more ingrained now. It really is not too difficult to get down to 6 000 litres, and it’s doing the right thing for the planet and saving money.”
‘People do it out of a sense of solidarity’
He believes the increase in water tariffs, and the need for people who have invested in rainwater tanks and grey-water systems to recoup their costs, will also keep consumption down.
Bob Scholes, a professor of systems energy at Wits University and among the top 1% of environmental scientists worldwide based on citation frequency, believes South Africans are going to have to get used to using far less water in the long term, not just during droughts.
“The key driver in this water scarcity has been rising demand. Even if people stick to restrictions we are still going to bump our heads on the ceiling at some stage.”
Asked what he thought was behind Capetonians’ continuing to save water, Scholes said, if an effect was dramatic enough, people did not quickly forget about it.
It also had to do with the sense that everyone was facing the difficulties together.
“A key driver of behaviour change in World War 2, when the government of Britain changed the economy overnight, was the sense that everyone, rich or poor, were in it together. That sense is a key indicator for mass behaviour change. People do it out of a sense of solidarity,” Scholes said.
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