Cape Town Drought

After some eighteen months of commuting between Europe and South Africa with 90-day tourist visas, I arrived in Cape Town in mid-January of this year with a 4-year residency permit.  It had involved several months of meeting many bureaucratic requirements (Applying for South African Residency), but finally I could stay, at least for four years, with the possibility of extending.

But no sooner had I landed, when my driver made me aware of the seriousness of the Cape drought situation.  At the end of the seasonal rains in 2014, the dams were almost full, but three years of below normal rainfall had left them in a precarious situation; the dam levels were at just over 20% capacity.  Little capacity remained, as the last 10% cannot easily be accessed.

Shortly after, the local government reduced the legal consumption from 87 litres per person per day to 50 litres.  Now I had no idea of what normal water consumption per day would be, but I was told that in Sweden 200 litres per day was normal and in the US 300.  So how to get down to 50 L per day?

Copious advice was available.  Obviously filling swimming pools, watering gardens and washing cars were out of the question.  We were advised that a 30 second shower used about 18 litres, a full flush of a toilet, 9 litres, and a quick flush, 5 litres.  And a washing machine and a dish washer about 25-35 litres each, depending on the make and model.  So, 50 litres per day per person was not a lot of water, at least not by western standards.

In the bars and restaurants, clients were urged not to flush toilets, unless absolutely necessary – ‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if brown, flush it down’.  And in the Radisson Hotel, near the Waterfront, there was and still is, an exhibit to educate guests on the water situation and the impact of having a bath or a 90-second shower.

Dam Levels 2007-2017

Water usuage

But how did Cape Town get in this precarious situation, that attracted the international press naming of Cape Town as the first major city at risk of running out of water?

Obviously, the failure of the annual winter rainfall was a major contributor to the crisis.  But I suspect that there has been no recent increase in the capacity to store water in the ‘wet’ years.  The existing dam walls need to be radically raised where feasible, to avoid the overflows in the wet years spilling to the sea.

Of course, the population of Cape Town is not static; according to Premier Helen Zille, between the census of 1996 and that of 2011, the population increased by 45% to 3.8 million.  I often wonder how they count the hordes of homeless and vagrants that one encounters in the relatively prosperous area in which we live, never mind in the ‘no-go’ townships, which sane people avoid.

And what about the tourist trade?  In recent years, Cape Town has been the ‘in place´ to visit and be seen.  But tourists are predictably not enthused about restricted showering and toilet flushing and choose to spend their money elsewhere.  After the ‘negative news’ hit the international press, the hotels, restaurants and bars of the city reflected the paucity of business.  It has not been a great year for the tourism industry.

In February the government announced that ‘Day Zero’ would be in March, the day when the water supply would be switched off and that citizens would have to collect their reduced daily allowance of 20 liters per person day.  This would be distributed at some 200 stand-pipes located near supermarkets and other gathering spots and the distribution would be supervised by the military.  There was no information as to how the ration of water would be accounted for.

Predictably there was immediately a run on bottled water.  The supermarket shelves were stripped dry and there was not a drop to be seen anywhere.  When a new shipment arrived in the morning, it soon evaporated.  The supermarkets limited the purchase per client, but the shelves remained empty.

Then ‘Day Zero’ was suddenly postponed and then postponed again.  There was still no rain, but the conservation efforts of the population and eliminating water to the farms, resulted in a 60% reduction of water consumption.  At least that was the official reason for the postponements.

And in early May it started to rain, not heavily, but persistently, and the dams started to fill.  Day by day the levels grew, from 20.9% on 7 May, through 30% on 5 June, 40% on 20 June, and 50% on 3 July.  As of today, the level is at 56.5%.

Is the drought over?  Probably it is for the next twelve months, but one must remember that the farms are still not receiving any water and they are suffering.  Until the stored water level gets to 70% of capacity, the emergency should not be declared as over for this year.Capture


To contribute to available water supplies in the future, the local government has set the objective of obtaining at least 10% from alternative supplies:

  • Desalination plants are being constructed
  • Wells are being drilled
  • A blitz on leaking pipes
  • Treating of effluent water

I recall my old friend in Toronto, Peter Pedrette, relating of when he was a junior quantity surveyor in London, he was being shown around a water treatment plan, and in a break was offered a glass of water from a tap.  After he drank it, he was told that the water had been through at least six people.

For cities, such as Cape Town, in the future reliance on natural rainfall may not be sufficient to satisfy local requirements.  Water, no matter the source, will have to be viewed as a valuable resource, to be cleansed, treated and returned to general consumption.

No longer can we take for granted that water will flow when we turn on the tap.

Mexico City

April 1976

We arrived back in Guatemala City from Antigua in the early afternoon, (see Volcán Agua), and reserved seats on the Tica Bus to Mexico City departure of the next day.  That evening we went to a nearby pizzeria and early to bed; there was no water and the electricity supply was at best, intermittent.

At about 23:00, I woke in a sweat, with an excruciating pain in my bowels.  In the dark, I scuttled to the communal toilet, to which most of the other guests seemed to have preceded me.  With no water supply and unable to flush the toilet, the stench was diabolical; it was a trip to the toilet that was to repeat itself many more times that night and the next morning.

What to do?   We had already paid for the tickets to Mexico City on a bus with no toilet for a 1,400 km journey.  If my gut spasms persisted, could I hold out until each of the next scheduled stops, on average about every two hours.  I decided to go for it.

And thankfully I made it without undue embarrassment… but only just.  As soon as we arrived in Mexico City, I went to the first pharmacy that I encountered  and sought relief.  The pharmacist listened to my symptoms and gave me some pills that he was confident would eliminate the problem.  They certainly worked, almost instantly; I was totally blocked up for most of the next two weeks.

We found a room in a clean and inexpensive hotel, close to the two great plazas of the city: the Alameda and the Zócolo.  It was a perfect location in the historic heart of the city.

Nearby was the Alameda, a large central city park, with a complex layout of paths, statues and fountains.  Originally it was the Aztec marketplace.  At the eastern end of the park is the Palacio de Bellas Artes, an opulent building dedicated to the performing arts – music, dance, theater and opera, and exhibitions of art and photography.

The Alameda (photo from internet)
The Palacio de Bellas Artes (photo from internet)

To the east of the Alameda is the Zócolo, known as the Plaza de la Constitutión, a massive square measuring about 250 m by 250 m.  On one side is the Cathedral, on another the Palacio Nacional and on the other two sides various Federal Buildings.  In the centre of the plaza there is an enormous flag pole.

The Zocoló (photo from internet)

We went to the Palacio Nacional to see the murals painted by Diego Rivera.  Now I am not renowned for my enthusiasm for things artistic, but a friend had told me that I would find a visit to have been worthwhile.  I was not disappointed.  The murals were most impressive, covering the history of Mexico from the pre-colonial era, through the Spanish conquest and the modern-day rise of the working class.  I felt very small looking up at them from the stairs and the adjacent corridors.

Diego Rivera mural in the Palacio Nacional
Murals of Diego Rivera in the Palacio Nacional (photo from internet)

That evening we went to the Frontón México, an art-deco building that was the home of Jai Alai in Mexico City.  It is a few minutes walk to the west of the Alameda.

Jai Alai is based on a similar game originating from the Vasco region of north-eastern Spain.  It is played on a long rectangular court with walls on three sides and a high ceiling, similar to an elongated squash court, with one wall removed and glass screening to protect the audience.

The ball is rock-hard and is caught and slung against the end wall with a hand-held device called a cesta.  It is renowned for being the fastest ball sport.

Most of the crowd were there to gamble and as a game progressed, the odds were constantly changing.  The book-takers ran up and down the steps taking bets and issuing receipts.  The noise level was impressive and I entered the fray, with my small bank of pesos that I was prepared to lose as part of the experience.  I survived for a couple of hours, sometimes up, at other times down, until it was gone.  It was a fun night.

The Frontón México as it is today (photo from internet)

On the way back to our hotel, we went to the Plaza Garibaldi, a short walk to the north of the Alameda.  The Plaza Garibaldi was known for its mariachi bands and we were not disappointed, for there were at least a dozen of them.  Each one consisted of violins, trumpets and different forms of guitars, some with a harp, at times each musician taking turns to sing, at other times singing as a group.

A typical mariachi group in the Plaza Garibaldi

And here you can hear how a mariachi group sounds…

It was with the sound of a dozen mariachi bands reverberating in our ears, that we wandered back to our hotel in the early hours of the morning.

And my bowels slept serenely that night…





Analemmatic Sundial

Since I moved to Cape Town over two years ago, I have walked through Green Point Park almost every day.  Many of the regular park staff greet me with a smile and a welcome comment; I always feel very much at home in the park.  And it is with keen interest that I observe the daily progress of the bird-life, the building of their nests and the hatching of their young, and the flowering of the plethora of Cape plants.  I am blessed with the time to witness the annual progress of nature.

In the middle of one of the open grass areas of the park, there is a semi-circle of small pillars.  I had sometimes wondered what they represented, but my curiosity was not great enough to deviate me from my path: until recently.


I found that there were 14 small pillars in a semi-circle, numbered from 6 to 19, and at right angles, two elliptical shapes marked with the months of the year.



I was still none the wiser until I read the explanation on the sign, and then all was revealed.


It was a normal Cape sunny day and I decided to test the sundial.  Following the instructions, I stood on the mark at July, stretched up my arms, noted the time, made the necessary adjustment as per the instructions and compared it to the time in my phone.  The latter was one minute slow!

Isn’t nature wonderful?…  🙂


April 1976

At the time, we never considered flying to Flores, the nearest airport to Tikal: we did not even know that there was an airport there, but if we had known, we would still have gone by bus.  So, A-M, Joe and I bought one-way tickets for the local bus, leaving late that evening.

It was very dark on the way to the depot. Few street lights in the city were functioning, but it was easy to find the bus at the depot: it was the only one with lights switched on and motor coughing and spluttering, ready to go.  It was an ancient bus that had seen better days: it was probably older than we were.  And as it turned out, we were the last passengers to arrive.

We entered the bus through the rear door and immediately the strong smell of stale sweat and unwashed clothes hit us.   We were the only ‘foreign’ passengers and we had to search for the three remaining dispersed seats.  There was no spare leg-room between the rows of seats and I felt like a giant when compared to the local Indian population.  The door was soon closed and with a roar, we departed.

Within a short time, the passengers that had been awake, were fast asleep.  Somewhere ahead of me A-M and Joe may have also been asleep.  I had a little Indian guy cuddled up to my shoulder.  He stayed there for most of the journey,  I really did not mind.

We were soon on a second or third-class road, sometimes descending, at others ascending, tossing, turning and bumping from pothole to pothole.  Twice our progress abruptly ceased.  Each time I got out with some others to watch the driver, buried in the engine, fiddling, swearing, adjusting, with only the light of a torch, until the motor finally exploded into life, to a round of applause from the appreciative audience.

At intervals through the night the bus stopped to drop off passengers or to pick up others. It was shortly after dawn when we arrived in Flores.  When I left the bus, I was no longer aware of human body smells.  How rapidly we can adjust to our environment.

Guatemala map
Map of Guatemala, with Flores about 480 km to the NNE of Guatemala City

We had no trouble in finding an inexpensive, but clean and comfortable hotel, with a view over the lake.  There appeared to be few, if any, tourists in Flores, most probably scared off by the earthquakes.  Joe headed off to find a neighbouring hostel that had been recommended to him, and we agreed to meet later that evening.

And when we did, Joe was enthusiastic about a bar that he had passed early that day.  We went in, and after our eyes had adjusted to the dim light, and we had settled down to our cold beers, the conservation went something like this…

‘Did you actually come here earlier today, Joe?’

‘Nope, I thought that I would wait for you two’

‘Joe, have you noticed anything different about the women?’

‘Well, there seem to be a lot of single women, and they are not wearing much’.

‘What about those doors along that corridor, with the couple just emerging?

‘No, I had not noticed’.

‘And the couple that have just gone down the corridor?  Joe, we are in a brothel’, at which point A-M started to laugh, and the spell was broken.

We eventually finished out beers and left.  No doubt A-M will still be recounting the story of that evening when we took her to a bordello.  And I suspect that Joe returned after we left him at his hostel.

Flores (photo from internet)

The next day we caught a local bus to the ruins of Tikal, about 65 km to the NW of Flores.  The Mayan city flourished during the era from 200-900 AD but was inexplicably abandoned over a relatively short time.  It became overgrown by the jungle and it was not until the mid-1800s that it was ‘rediscovered’, although the local Indian tribes were aware of its existence.

When we were there, it was only partly uncovered, and there were numerous mounds, smothered in vegetation, that once restored, would one day reveal their form and purpose.  In its day, Tikal encompassed a large area, connected by causeways.

The temples were massive, and we climbed two of them, Temples I and II.  They were steep, and the steps were irregular and quite worn, but the view from the top over the jungle was breath-taking.  And on the way up, monkeys were screeching at us from neighbouring trees.  It was sobering to remember that countless of human sacrifices were performed on those elevated altars.

Temple I (photo from internet)
Temple II (photo from internet)
Temple V (photo from internet)

We were travelling light and decided to spend the night in Tikal, sleeping in hammocks in a little enclosure in the jungle.  The shelter was circular, with a thick waterproof roof of fronds, open on all sides, with a waist-high wall.  There was no light, so when the sun set, we climbed into our hammocks.

Initially, I fell asleep, but was often awoken by the constant clamour of the jungle.  It was another world out there.  At one time there was a furious galloping through our clearing.  The next day we were told that it would have been a tapir.

A tapir with the mottled camouflage of the young (photo from internet)

When we returned to Flores, we decided to fly back to Guatemala City.  The Flores airport was nearby, and none of us relished another long and uncomfortable bus journey.

The next day, Joe continued on his way north and we headed off to Antigua.  You can read more of our journey here at Volcán Agua.