Listening to the messages from Water: lessons in the Cape drought.

The recent storm by Cape Town Photographer
An unusual circular cloud came over Cape Town bringing a dramatic electrical storm and soaking shower to answer prayers. Photographer unknown.

The atmosphere in Cape Town has changed since the first of February, the day they implemented Level 6b water restrictions. The rations went from 87 litres per person per day to less than 50 litres of water a day (37 ideally). This sounds very little to most people, unless they have gone camping in the desert and had to carry their own water. Usually in those circumstances, one can manage on much less. The Bushmen of the Kalahari would think 50 litres a day to be a complete splurge. Imagine that amount bottled in Ostrich shell water containers?  One would need a camel or two to carry them.  Everybody knows that the San people do not ride camels, nor even horses.  They walk barefoot. Sensually in touch with every scent and broken twig and footprint in the sand.  That is how they survived since the beginning of time- being the first people to walk the earth.  Never taking anything more than they needed.  (They could not conceive  of hoarding.)  The Bushmen and women of the Kalahari probably cope with less water than that in a month. However, to the average stressed out middle class Captonian, the tightening of the water belt has caused a lot of stress.

Even though most Captonian’s have already adjusted their lifestyles to adapt to the water restrictions which have incrementally been tightened bit by bit. We are already used to slopping smelly buckets of second hand water into the toilet cistern every time we need to flush. It’s is a way of life. Many of us have got used to regularly queuing for water at the natural spring in Newlands and in St. James or siphoning it from a mountain stream. Yet this time the tightening of the rations created a new level to the reality of running out of water. It is an awful inconvenient truth when one goes into a public bathroom and none of the taps work. There is only an offering of waterless sanitizer as a means of cleansing ones hands.

Water is off
Hand sanitizer replaces water in most public toilets.

For the first time, I see homeless street people  (many of whom come from KhoiSan or “Bushman” roots) carrying bottles of water. They can no longer presume to find a tap to drink from in a public space somewhere. Water has become a rare and valuable commodity.   People are putting locks on their outdoor taps to prevent others stealing their water. The tightening of the taps causes a sense of lack and limitation as well as an immediate and irrational stress thirst. The thirst seems to stem from a biochemical reaction to a belief that if water is scarce, then life is threatened.

Children are being told to bring their own drinking water to school and in some cases, parents are asked to donate a bucket of grey water to flush the toilets as well.  Many restaurants have removed the taps in their bathrooms, and refuse to serve tap water for free to thirsty customers, and have become very protective of their bathrooms. They guard their facilities like bulldogs, (as I experienced in an upmarket part of town recently. The woman told me that their water will be cut off if they pass the daily limit. “We would rather make money, than let people use our toilet.” She snapped. (I had to promise not to flush and make sure I ordered something from the menu promptly, in order to qualify to use their restroom.)

I attended a gathering of women on the night of the auspicious full blue blood supermoon on the 31st of January.  It also happened to be the eve of the great tightening of our water rations. The new level 6b restrictions were implemented after weeks of media hype from all directions about the disastrous fast approaching, doom-filled Day Zero.  Day Zero is the day the taps are set to run completely dry as the supply runs out.  When that happens, we will be expected to collect all our water at collection points.  We have also been told with emphasis, that when and if this happens it will be “Disastrous.”   So of course, it was a very nerve-wracking time.

At that stage, Day Zero was set for mid-April.  Luckily it has now been anounced that it has been pushed back to June, so Cape Townians are breathing a sigh of relief, we are all praying that it will not happen at all because June is usually in the rainy season.  However, it has been a long hot dry summer, and still, every day is another perfect beach day without a cloud in the sky.

Not a cloud in the sky.
Another perfect beach day in February

In the safe womb-like space of the woman encircled in the dark tent on the windswept wetland, that full moon night, we each spoke our prayers and insights against the sound of the flapping canvas.

As they spoke, I began to understand the many layers of healing, which can (if one is open-minded to it) be found through this water crisis. The gathering was a water blessing ceremony. A Shamanic ceremony for blessing the element of water as an entity and honouring of the waters within and without ourselves. There is no escaping the fact that no matter how caught up we are with our man-made possessions, technology and successes – we are still dependent on mother nature, just as much as any other animal or plant on the planet. We have water inside us, which is affected just as much by the moon phases as the tides of the ocean are.  We depend on the water of the earth as our precious resource.  If we honour it and bless it with gratitude, it brings peace and reward to our own body and brain chemistry and if we respect and bless our resources, we will receive it’s blessing in return, and naturally, be living more sustainably.

Experiencing this lack of water on a daily basis creates this kind of appreciation. Access to water is a basic right which is being threatened.  Yet if there is no respect for the resource we cannot be entitled to it. Just like we cannot be entitled to food or a roof over our heads, shoes, or education. Disasters happen.  Nothing is permanent. We have to be grateful for what we have because, at any moment, it can be taken away. We cannot feel entitled to life either. Who knows what may happen tomorrow?  So we are humbled enough to value this necessary element, to address the spirit of water as an entity.

Each woman was given a chance to speak her blessing.

One called for peace and harmony among the people of Cape Town. Water is the element of emotion. If the people of Cape Town were to humble themselves and connect emotionally to each other as a result of all being in the same boat, it may heal many ancient divides socially and mentally.  Waiting in the queue for water is already doing that.   This is a city where the poorest of the poor have been waiting in queues for water in their communities long before the water crisis hit.  Many have never had taps or toilets in their houses.  The queues at the freshwater springs bring people together from all walks of life.  Having to carry buckets every day reminds us of others who have never had the conveniences we have become used to.

See my post: The Water Carriers of Cape Town.

Collecting mountain water
Strangers meet on the mountain collecting from a little mountain spring. Water brings us together..

There was a call for the element of water to teach us to connect to spirit. In every corner, people of every faith and religion are calling to the heavens for rain. So this is another way that the apparent lack of water is creating a higher consciousness. Calls for prayer have been sent out on social media, and forwarded by friends to one another. I received one suggesting lighting a candle every day and saying a prayer of gratitude for the water and the rain that has sustained us until now.  Huge prayer meetings are being held in Mosques and Cathedrals and Synagogues across the city as well as under the stars. Water is bringing people together in prayer of all creeds and religions.

In the circle that night, another woman called for courage to find ways through the crisis. There has been much fear created by this lack of water. Fear is the most dangerous element as it causes war. It also causes people to hoard water. It may cause others to relocate. The economy is already suffering as tourists have cancelled their trips to Cape Town.

However, the greatest gift is that it is teaching us to be more resourceful about using much less water. We have to adapt to Climate Change, we have known this for years, but only those with vision and passion have implemented actual changes to prepare for this inevitable outcome to global warming. Even though scientists have written books outlining the obvious changes, which include the drying out of the Western Cape region.  It is amazing how a bit of last-minute -deadline -pressure whip -cracking gets fast action.

Suddenly the idea of building an eco-toilet in one’s back yard makes urgent and complete sense. Installing a water tank and building a waterless eco–toilet is essential before day zero if you have the means. Yet a few months ago people were still too comfortable to bother. It has become obvious that we cannot afford to flush our toilets with good clean drinking water, and if it does run out, we will be in a very stinky situation, to say the least.  What’s worse, it only takes the experience of a bout of gastro which is rife in Cape Town already, to understand the implications of no water to flush or wash hands.

Water tank delivery
A delivery of water tanks arrives. A flood of orders for tanks has driven prices up. It’s adapt or die time.

In mid-February an unexpected thundershower caught me running through the rain with my dog. I passed an African woman on a bridge and smiled with the excitement of it. She smiled back, quite content with being caught in the rain. “Let’s just enjoy it. “ She said. A little further down the road, I met a group of young foreign students from the International Bible College.  They were dancing and singing praises in the rainy street outside their youth hostel.  “Free wet hugs!” I offered them as I passed. We all hugged each other in the pouring rain. There was such laughter and heartfelt joy exploding into giggles of delight. Even the people in the traffic jam were jumping for joy in their cars.   The shower was short, but it united the people at that moment. The drought has been relentless but it has brought people to an awareness of our dependence on mother earth for our life force.


Perhaps this is the beginning of a realization, which Native American Chief Seattle warned of in his speech over a hundred years ago:  “When the last tree is cut, the last buffalo slaughtered, the last river poisoned, then will you realize that you can’t eat money?”

One of the reasons for Day Zero being pushed back is that city planners have made some big shifts. Half the municipal water was being allocated to agriculture.  The farmers elected to give this up and use their own boreholes and watering cans to water their crops. This has made a huge difference and there is major gratitude from the city residents towards the farmers for this.  However, perhaps the allocation of so much water and land being turned to the production of wine should be reconsidered.  Perhaps more food should be grown on wine farms -(although vegetables drink a lot too- it can be done using water-wise methods.)  Other dams have been channelled towards Cape Town as a result of farmers agreeing to help prevent Day Zero.  Water on Table Mountain, which has long flowed straight into the sea, is finally being tapped for municipal use.  All this has helped push back Day Zero.  It is a high time we adapted to Climate change in these obvious ways. Nothing like a bit of a crisis to force some innovation. We have all been forced to make sacrifices and adapt to our changing environment.

So the element of water has taught us many lessons. The important lesson I have learned is not to take anything for granted because water is life, and life cannot be taken for granted. Anything could happen tomorrow.

Zandvlei River Estuary, Muizenberg
The river near our home doesn’t always flow to the sea. Zandvlei River Estuary is tidal. Low tide these days leaves a trickle.

Last night, the sound of thunder in the air and rain on the roof was both magical and soothing. We had already soaked ourselves, clambering up ladders in the dark to make sure every leaking gutter was bandaged and directing every drop to our new tank, and plastic bins. We had to make the most of this gift of free water from God. Manna from Heaven.

It reminds me of when I was a child growing up on a farm in the Karoo, where drought was part of life. When it rained my Dad ran out heroically in his gumboots into the storm with a spade to lead the water to irrigate the lands by digging furrows.  We all have to work with the elements now.  It keeps us in touch with our life force.


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