It was on May 7 last year that the combined Cape Town dams held only 20.9% of their maximum capacity. The city was restricted to a daily allowance of 55 liters per person, the supermarket shelves more often than not were devoid of drinking water, and we were only days from the mains supply being switched off and an emergency situation declared.
And emergency supplies meant 20 liters per person to be collected in your own containers from stand-pipes somewhere in the neighborhood. But nobody seemed to know where the stand-pipes would be located and how we would identify ourselves. It threatened to be chaotic. In a modern society, such as is that of much of Cape Town, can you imagine trying to cope with cooking, washing, flushing toilets etc. with so little water?
But nature relented and the rains started to fall, and month by month the dam levels rose, until they peaked on October 8, at 76.2% capacity. The immediate emergency was over, but not quite; the rainfall was most welcome, but it was still below average. Personal consumption was increased to 105 liters per person.
In our apartment building, we have recently had installed individual water meters. Once a week, first thing Saturday morning, I note our consumption, and it is constantly 110-130 liters per day, well within the guidelines. Since the emergency, we have been very conscious of not using more water than is absolutely necessary. I suspect that we will now always treat access to potable water as a valuable privilege, wherever we are.
Cape Town is very much a tourist destination and it was very much hurt by the negative international publicity regarding the drought. I find it encouraging to know that one of the local hotels, Radisson Water Front, has eliminated its dependency on local water supply, and has constructed a desalination plant to supply its own needs. Perhaps others will follow their example.
As part of the water augmentation plans, the Western Cape government has commissioned three desalination plants along the coast, but with little success. They take water directly from the ocean, but have been hit by the natural occurrence of algal bloom in False Bay and recent contractual disputes. It seems that we will continue to depend on natural rainfall.
Today is May 18 and the dam water levels stand at 45.6% of capacity. And light showers are forecast for tomorrow.
As an Irishman, I never thought that I would ever say ‘May it rain… ‘.