Cape Town Copes With Water Crisis | KUOW News and Information

Cape Town Copes With Water Crisis

Feb 4, 2018
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The South African city of Cape Town is facing a water crisis. It's unlike anything the city has experienced before. The contributing factors are many - a three-year drought, increasing populations - population size and poor long-term planning. In any case, the city of Cape Town is set to run out of water by April. City officials are calling that Day Zero, when all municipal water will be turned off. And for months now, residents have been told to reduce their water consumption.

To understand the impact this is all having on daily life, we called Nina Elvin-Jensen. She is the owner of a local travel company, Cape Concierge. And she's with us now from Cape Town. Nina, thanks so much for speaking with us.

NINA ELVIN-JENSEN: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: I understand that you are kind of at ground zero. You're at the place where the strictest restrictions have come into play. Is that right?

ELVIN-JENSEN: Yeah, that's correct. We're now at Level 6B water restrictions, which is an unprecedented level. But what that means at the moment is that every resident of Cape Town is required to use 50 liters or less of water per day. Just to put that into perspective, it takes 9 liters to flush a toilet, or a 90-second shower is 14 liters. So obviously, it goes quite quickly. But at the moment, it's manageable.

MARTIN: So give me a sense of your daily routine, if you would.

ELVIN-JENSEN: As of today, you might bypass a shower every other day, or you just go very, very quickly and you also use a bucket. So you turn on the water, wet your hair, turn off the water, shampoo it quickly. And then you might just rinse with the bucket that you've got. So you've got to simplify your lifestyle a bit. And when it comes to cleaning, washing your clothes, flushing the loos, you're just going to do that at - much, much less than you would otherwise. It's not an ideal situation, but at the moment, it's still livable.

MARTIN: You're in the tourist industry. I mean, tourism is a big part of Cape Town's economy, isn't it? I mean, it's one of those places that, you know, people dream of visiting. How has your business been affected? And I would imagine that this is starting to be the season when visitors would start to come, because on the East Coast in the U.S., it's winter. It's cold. So it's summer there, so...

ELVIN-JENSEN: This year, business is definitely down. I know many people that obviously booked throughout June, July, August for their holidays coming up now. They still came. But it's the people that would usually book to come February, March, April, which is still high season, and they're suddenly just not booking at all. They make the inquiries, and then they ask them about the water. As soon as they realise the possible severity of the water restrictions, then they don't book.

MARTIN: But, you know, there are also certain businesses that are really reliant upon water. Like, I'm thinking hairdressers. I mean, what do they do? I mean - I think I may be more interested in people like car-washing places that water is a big part of their business. What do they do?

ELVIN-JENSEN: Absolutely. So hairdressers, for example, now say, if it's not necessary to wash your hair, we won't do that. Then there are the garden nurseries that have obviously been having a really tough time because no one's buying any plants, because they know they can't water them and they will die. And then the car-washing companies, also, they've been using greywater.

So they'd be - just been collecting water that has fallen from the roofs, down the drains. Whatever you call as greywater, that's what they're using to wash cars. So they're trying to adapt as much as possible, but there's no doubt that they've just lost a lot of business purely by people choosing to not wash their car. Because, obviously, it's sort of a dumb thing right now (laughter).

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I just wanted to ask. Are you scared? You know, Day Zero is a pretty sobering thought to contemplate, and it's not that far off. Are you frightened? And...

ELVIN-JENSEN: Yeah. I think, just from the 1 of February, we know it's still another 150 days till this possible point where the taps run dry, and we're already on 50 liters a day. The scary thing is, like, what is the next restriction? How low are we going to get? And are the taps going to run dry, or are - is this sort of a scare tactic to make sure we stick to our 50 liters?

I don't know anyone here who's been through this before. And also, the city hasn't been through this before. We hope there's preparations being made. But I think the one worry is, are there really enough precautions in place? Because they're planning 200 water pickup points, but the city has 3.7 million people. So 200 collection points is clearly not really enough.

MARTIN: That's Nina Elvin-Jensen. She's the owner of a local travel company, Cape Concierge in Cape Town. We've been talking about the water restrictions. They are facing a very severe water crisis. We reached her via Skype. Nina Elvin-Jensen, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ELVIN-JENSEN: Thanks, Michel. Lovely to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.