Cape Town’s Jews weigh in on looming water crisis

Once “Day Zero” hits, Cape Town’s 3.7 million residents will have to travel to one of 200 water collection points to collect their daily water rations: 25 liters of water per person.

WATER LEVELS are seen in November at about 24 percent full at Voelvlei Dam, a large water catchment dam near Cape Town. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters) (photo credit: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS)
WATER LEVELS are seen in November at about 24 percent full at Voelvlei Dam, a large water catchment dam near Cape Town. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)
Eighty days. That is the amount of water that the City of Cape Town has left – which means that if drastic action is not taken by approximately April 12, Cape Town will become the world’s first major city to run out of water.
On that date, deemed “Day Zero,” water reservoirs across the city are expected to hit 13.5% of capacity – at which point, according to Cape Town Mayor Patricia De Lille, taps will be turned off and severe water rationing will begin.
As “Day Zero” looms closer and Cape Town becomes drier, members of Cape Town’s Jewish community have expressed their concerns about the water crisis.
In addition, many have called on South Africa’s ruling party to accept Israel’s help with the impending disaster, help which Ambassador to South Africa Lior Keinan has offered when meeting with government officials, an offer that has never been taken up.
In a tweet last week, former ambassador to South Africa Arthur Lenk said, “South Africa’s Israel-haters should be held to account for pressuring to limit sharing of Israel’s water management technologies.
Hope they fail and people of Cape Town thrive.”
An online petition, which so far has garnered nearly 2,000 signatures, is demanding that South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, accept Israel’s help.
“The Israeli government approached the ruling ANC party to offer solutions years ago, but the ANC turned them down and adopted a pro-Palestinian stance,” it reads. “This petition demands that the ANC cease importing the politics of the Middle East and taking an anti-Israel unilateral stance. Demand that the South African government commence immediate talks with Israel to ask for help with solving our water crisis.”
Once “Day Zero” hits, Cape Town’s 3.7 million residents will have to travel to one of 200 water collection points to collect their daily water rations: 25 liters of water per person.
Residents are currently allowed to use only 50 liters of water per person per day, but it is estimated that over 60% of the city’s residents have not been adhering to this restriction.
Earlier this week, Premier Helen Zille of Western Cape province – where Cape Town is situated – wrote in her weekly column in South Africa’s Daily Maverick that “as things stand‚ the challenge exceeds anything a major city has had to face anywhere in the world since the Second World War or 9/11.”
On Wednesday, several members of Cape Town’s Jewish community shared their concerns and thoughts with The Jerusalem Post.
Cape Town resident Lee-Ann Gelb said that “we’re all using as little as we can. Stop/start showers that last under two minutes with water-efficient shower heads, flushing the toilet only when necessary... and it’s even being done in some public spaces.”
She said as far as she knows the government is busy building desalination plants and aquifers, which were supposed to be completed in February.
“They are not meant to solve the problem, but just help produce more water to alleviate the issues. It could have kept us out of ‘Day Zero’ if, and only if, people were saving water. But they’re running behind schedule and looking to only be complete around July. So ‘Day Zero’ is imminent, and we’ll probably be collecting daily rations of water for months,” she said.
Regarding how she feels about the situation, Gelb said it’s frightening.
“It’s very easy to blame the government, because this has been on the radar for years. The scary thing is that despite this, 60% of citizens are not saving water and are using more than the suggested amount,” she said.
Gelb told the Post that she’s continuously anxious about “hearing a tap run, the guilt... the worry of ‘am I using too much?’ while doing my dishes, the concerns about hygiene and the smell from bathrooms....
We’re still waiting to hear more info about ‘Day Zero’ logistically: How will collections work? What will be the opening times? How much do we pay? How do we collect? What about the elderly? What about Shabbat?” She added that there “is a lot to consider.... Personally, it feels a bit apocalyptic.”
Gelb reiterated that Cape Town “is in a position to get help from anywhere they can get. It would be irresponsible to its citizens not to. The only concern is that is it too late? ‘Day Zero’ is roughly 90 days away, so I don’t know if any help can perform a miracle that quickly.”
ANALYSTS HAVE cited low rainfall over the past few years, severe drought, careless water usage by residents, poor planning by the city and, of course, climate change as just some of the reasons that have led to this impending disaster.
“South Africa is an arid country,” said Dr. Clive Lipchin, a water expert from Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, who was born and raised in South Africa. “Arid countries can no longer rely on rainfall alone for their water supply.”
Lipchin told the Post that “there has to be a long-term management plan in place. Looking at the situation from the outside, it seems there was a lack of adequate planning to prepare for the drought. The drought is not a surprise to anyone. They simply woke up too late.”
Lipchin maintains that when it comes to water management, the days of thinking that water is an automatic right and provided for free are gone.
“We have to throw out the old playbook and bring in a new playbook – [and] this is where Israel comes in,” said Lipchin, pointing out just how much Israel has made water a national priority. “Water is as important as national security.”
He said Israel’s biggest achievement in water management is not just desalination. “It’s long-term planning. Israel is currently in its fifth year of drought, primarily in the north of the country, but we don’t have to ration or increase [water] tariffs for potable water. We have alternatives: desalination, wastewater recycling, and natural underground reservoirs [aquifers].”
Lipchin emphasized the importance of putting long-term plans in place for desalination and wastewater treatment and reuse.
“It takes years to build and finance desalination plants and other critical water infrastructure, and even if they start building today, it will not solve this crisis – only perhaps the next one,” he said.
“And it’s not so simple – it’s expensive, and the question has to be asked: Does the South African government have the financial and technical resources to do this? “The water crisis is not the apocalypse, but Cape Town needs to cultivate its water resources wisely and produce more water and manage demand. Water issues in general are not about the amount of water, it’s about managing it properly.”
Lipchin added that the situation is a big wake-up call to the country and others around the world.
“The message to South Africa is: What is your future plan? This is not going to get better. Even if later this year or next year there’s enough rainfall and the reservoirs are overflowing, the year after there could be another drought. There has to be alternatives, and there has to be sustainable long-term water management plans in place.
“It’s a major challenge – no water is no water – [and] you can’t buy your way out of it, rich or poor. Today it could be Cape Town and tomorrow it could be Johannesburg or anywhere else in the world for that matter.”
Lipchin encouraged South Africa to put politics aside and approach and accept help from any country, including Israel, which can assist in dealing with the situation.
“The essence of how we have succeeded in water management can be a lesson to the rest of the world,” he said.
MEANWHILE, A Jewish mother of three who asked to remain anonymous said it’s been scary, “but now we’re all at the point where we’re trying to come up with ideas of how we’re going to function. How do you work and find time to queue for water? How to carry 25 liters of water per person on your own?” She recently gave birth to twins, and needs to feed them every two to three hours. “They estimate we’ll be in queues [for water] for four hours, so I have to work out if I take them or what I need to do.”
She added that some suggestions to deal with “Day Zero” include “buying hand sanitizer, dry shampoo, there’s stuff you can put in the toilet so you don’t have to flush and throwing toilet paper into the dustbin so not to clog the toilet.
“We’re all used to showering with buckets, but it’s also things like washing dishes, clothes, you won’t be able to use a washing machine.... People don’t want to use paper plates because of the environment, but I don’t think we have any other option,” she said.
A big worry for many Cape Town residents is what will happen to the trucks delivering water.
“There’s concerns about gangs and hijackings – there’s going to have to be a strong police and military force to prevent violence and fighting over a basic need.... For almost a year now we’ve had an Aquazania [water-dispensing] machine, our drinking water is delivered once a month in 30-liter containers, but the real concern is that the average South African, as you know, can’t afford luxuries like Aquazania machines,” she added.
Asked whether Israel should be consulted or if the government should ask for help, several residents, both Jewish and non-Jewish, said that the only ones who believe Israel should not be consulted are the anti-Israel groups.
The City of Cape Town has assured residents that projects are in place to combat the situation in the future. These include groundwater abstraction from the three aquifers around Cape Town, the three desalination plants that are currently being built, and the recycling of wastewater.
“However,” it said, “these projects will only ensure water security in the long run, and we cannot relax our water-saving efforts for [even] one day.