In my household we shower every few days. We don’t flush every time. After a dinner party, I empty my guests’ water glasses into the houseplants. It’s been four years since I lived through Cape Town’s water crisis, but hard-earned habits die hard. My water conservation routines may sound like too much information, or even borderline unhygienic, but as the threat of water scarcity looms large around the world, they may well be worth adopting.
In late 2017, Cape Town was on the brink of becoming the first major global city to run out of water, due to a combination of climate change, drought, and bad water management. To stave off “Day Zero”—the moment when reservoir levels would drop below a critical threshold and household water supplies would be turned off—residents were told to limit use to 13 gallons of water per person per day. (The average American uses 82.) That was enough for a 90-second shower, a half-gallon of drinking water, one load of hand-washed dishes or laundry, one cooked meal, two hand washings, two teeth brushings, and one toilet flush. Watering plants was out of the question. I know because I was counting down the gallons on our water meter.
Fear was a huge motivator—the apocalyptic specter of having to wait in line at public taps for a daily allotment of 8 gallons of water per person once Day Zero hit was enough to drive most residents into immediate compliance. So was shame: households that exceeded their daily allowance were tagged with a red dot on the municipal water authority’s online map. And we all checked it, obsessively.
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Within a month, municipal water usage dropped by 50%, and stayed there. Day Zero never came, and eventually, after seven months of living on 13 gallons of water a day, the rains returned, and reservoir levels rose to a healthy level. And Capetonians have maintained their water-wise ways: recent research conducted by Martine Visser, director of the Environmental Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town and shared with TIME, shows that household water consumption is 61% of pre-drought levels. And even though I have since moved to Rome, a relatively water-rich city that runs drinking fountains 24/7, I still can’t take water for granted. I don’t shower in a bucket anymore so I can use the collected water to flush the toilets, but I still have the bucket, just in case. If I don’t have dinner guests, the dog’s day-old water goes to the plants instead. The sound of a dripping tap has the same effect on me as the Jaws theme song—it raises goosebumps.
Cape Town may have been the first major modern city to come within days of running out of water, but it will not be the last. According to the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, almost half the global population will experience “severe water stress” by 2030 as a result of population growth and climate change. That means less water for food production, prompting the United States to pronounce water scarcity a national security issue earlier this month.
Most recently, California has been feeling the squeeze as the western U.S. experiences its worst drought in over 1,000 years. In April, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California declared a “water shortage emergency” following the state’s driest ever start to the year. On June 1, the Department of Water and Power called for a 35% reduction in water use in my home town of Los Angeles, implementing draconian—at least for Angelenos addicted to lawns and car washes—water usage limits. The city’s 8 million residents are only allowed to water their lawns twice a week, for a maximum of eight minutes. They are also being asked to keep their showers to under five minutes, which still feels laughingly profligate to me. During the Cape Town drought the city partnered with South Africa’s best musicians to record 120-second versions of their most popular songs so residents could sing along and get out of the shower in two minutes, without having to rely on a timer. In L.A., you just need to listen to Kate Bush running up that hill.
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The long-term prognosis for California is not good. Most of the state is suffering severe, extreme, or exceptional drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor; in 2020 climate scientists found that California is in the middle of a “megadrought” exacerbated by climate change and likely to continue for an indefinite amount of time. Given its high water consumption, Los Angeles could easily face its own “Day Zero,” says Jan Kürstein, a Danish hydrogeologist who was brought in as a consultant during the Cape Town water crisis. L.A., he says, is already behind the ball when it comes to communicating the gravity of the situation. “In the case of a drought like this, you have to radically lower your water consumption.” Leaving lawns unwatered is not enough, he says, the city has to start thinking about alternative sources, like ground wells, desalinization, and reclaiming sewage. Cape Town didn’t start considering alternatives until it was too late, but California can learn from Cape Town’s mistakes. That may mean embracing the heretofore unthinkable—using treated wastewater for everything from watering lawns to taking showers and yes, even drinking. Namibia’s Windhoek, the world’s driest capital, has been recycling its sewage into drinking water for 50 years.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power recently announced a new initiative to recycle 100% of its wastewater into drinking water by 2035. It’s a great start, albeit approximately 13 years too late. In the meantime, putting a higher price on water could be a good way to start saving it, says Kürstein. That worked up to a point in Cape Town—higher usage was taxed at a higher rate, forcing middle- and lower-class consumers to cut down to cut costs. But the wealthy kept watering their lawns and filling their pools, until the city implemented a total household usage cap, enforced by physical devices that automatically restricted water flow after a certain point.
Of course, it’s not just because of a looming shortage that we should be conserving water. Even countries that aren’t at risk of drought should be making an effort. Extracting, purifying, transporting, and heating water uses energy. Water is necessary for the wetlands that sequester carbon, and for the rivers and lakes that sustain biodiversity and fish populations. Does that mean everyone should start bathing in a bucket? Probably not. But it might not be such a bad idea to remember the old rhyme my mom taught me when California was going through a major drought in the late ‘80s: “If it’s brown, flush it down. If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” Your city might not be at the stage where every drop counts, at least not yet, but if anything, it’s a good reminder that water is too precious to just flush down the toilet.
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