Mrs Snaddon says she is worried about what sort of world Frank is likely to grow up in. (ABC News: Matthew Clayfield)
Julia Snaddon was already several months pregnant when Cape Town announced that “Day Zero” was imminent.
This was the day the city would be forced to turn off the taps: Cape Town was dry, tempers were frayed, and Mrs Snaddon found herself imagining what her son Frank’s future might look like.
“Frank didn’t sign up for closing night,” she says. “I made that decision for him.”
‘We weren’t allowed to flush’
South Africa’s Western Cape region had been plagued by drought for almost three years. In January, with dam levels ebbing dangerously, the city announced some of the most radical water restrictions ever seen.
Capetonians were presented with a stark choice: curb their water use or the city would ration water to 25 litres per person per day, with residents forced to queue at collection points around the city.
“Pregnant women pee a lot and we weren’t allowed to flush that,” Mrs Snaddon says. “It got a bit gross.”
“I wondered how the hell I was supposed to queue for water when I had a newborn baby. I was honestly considering leaving town before he was born, like some kind of migrating herd animal, to avoid having to travel with him to moister pastures when he was tiny.”
By March, the city had reduced its daily water usage by more than 50 per cent. Day Zero was pushed back, initially to August.
When the rains finally broke over winter, filling the city’s dams to 76 per cent, it was pushed back indefinitely.
The Theewaterskloof dam, which supplies Cape Town’s water, has dried up. (Reuters: Mike Hutchings)
Watching from Western Sydney
From Sao Paulo to Bangalore, researchers and analysts have watched Cape Town’s crisis unfold with a mind to their own drought-prone cities. With 98 per cent of NSW in drought, the University of Western Sydney’s Dr Ian Wright is among them.
“Australia has an uncertain climate that looks like it may be becoming drier in the south, where the majority of the population live,” he says.
“Perth has suffered 40 years of lower and lower rainfall, and lower flows, as its population has increased. Many inland cities also face water stress, including the fact that the accessible water — often groundwater — is of poor quality.
“There’s a strong chance things will get drier and we will have more struggling communities. We must learn from Cape Town.”
Measures like Cape Town’s “water dashboard” — an online resource that presented citizens with usage targets, dam levels, and other relevant information in a clear way — could easily be adopted, he says.
‘Shame can be powerful’
But the water dashboard was only one of the measures Cape Town adopted to avert Day Zero. It also named and shamed heavy users, imposed tariffs, and implemented a series of behavioural “nudges”.
Cape Town University professor Martine Visser worked with the city in 2015 and 2016, testing the impact of these “nudges” on households.
“Middle- and high-income groups reacted more strongly to social recognition, social norms, and public goods messaging,” she says.
“For lower-income groups, messages related to financial savings were more effective.”
To alter the behaviour of “water guzzlers” — those consuming more than 50 kilolitres per household per month — the city sent out personal letters, shaming them and threatening to install water-restricting devices.
“The letter itself resulted in a 3 per cent reduction in consumption amongst those households and the effect lasted for up to nine months,” she says.
Injunctions to save water continue to be visible everywhere around Cape Town. (ABC News: Matthew Clayfield)
Dr Wright from UWS says “shame can be powerful”, and there may come a time when it should be employed in Australia.
“In Sydney in the 1990s and early 2000s, people were more than happy to dob in their neighbours,” he says.
“Since we have an average water use of 300 litres per person, per day in Sydney, in a severe drought, the water authority should publicly name the recalcitrant water users that continue to have long showers and drench their gardens.”
As divisions emerge between Capetonians, some are pointing fingers at suburban residents’ lush gardens and pools. (Mary Lloyd)
More than dobbing in your neighbour
But there’s more to be done besides consumer pressure.
Dr Kirsty Carden of the University of Cape Town’s Future Water Institute. (ABC News: Matthew Clayfield)
Kirsty Carden, a researcher at the University of Capetown’s Future Water Institute, says that bore water and other alternative sources have been adopted on a massive scale since Day Zero was announced, especially among richer Capetonians.
“What we need to focus on, if we’re going to start relying on alternative sources in a more institutionalised way, is bringing those sources into the supply chain,” she says.
“We need to be more like cities such as Melbourne in terms of managing our various water sources, diversifying how we collect our water and bringing all those sources onto the grid.”
The fissures that have long plagued South Africa — race, class and economic inequality — were further highlighted by the crisis.
Some wealthier Capetonians accused Africans in the city’s informal townships of wasting water, even though most, as Dr Carden puts it, “have been living under Day Zero conditions their whole lives, using about 40 litres per person per day.”
Most township residents living in informal housing bathe in wash basins, so for many, Day Zero won’t change much. (Reuters: Finbarr O’Reilly)
Organisations such as the Tafelsig Activists Forum framed the restrictions as a money-making endeavour and a hoax.
Political differences also meant Cape Town’s experience was largely ignored at the national level, according to Dr Carden. The Western Cape is governed by the Democratic Alliance, while the African National Congress, which has been in power at the national level since the end of Apartheid, remains dominant everywhere else.
“I don’t think the national government has realised that this is a learning opportunity,” Dr Carden says.
“Gauteng, which is the South African province with the largest population, has really pressing water issues — yet Cape Town has largely been left to its own devices.”
Cape Town’s townships are home to over a million people, dominated by public and informal housing. (Mary Lloyd )
Not out of the woods
While many Capetonians continue to be vigilant, experts have warned that consumption is again on the rise and may prove unsustainable.
By the beginning of November, usage had already increased to 593 million litres per day — nearly 100 million litres above the city’s target — and dam levels will drop between 1 or 2 per cent a week over summer.
“The question is what happens next,” says Dr Carden.
“If we maintain our current consumption levels, we should have enough to see us through to next season.
“If people suddenly start going mad, using water like they used to, we’ll be in trouble again.”
What lies ahead?
Mrs Snaddon says she’s impressed by how Capetonians “stepped up to the plate”. But she’s still left wondering what sort of world her bouncing 5-month-old son is likely to grow up in.
“It plays on my mind a lot,” she says.
“Firstly, because having a child is by far the worst thing you can do in terms of managing your carbon footprint, and secondly because I don’t know if the world is going to be much fun a few decades from now when it starts getting hot.”
“I solace myself with the thought that I can raise him to save the world. No pressure.”