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February 20, 2018

2/7/2018 3:42:00 PM
Cape Town Crisis a Wake-Up Call for Water Conservation

Worldwide water-watchers have their eyes on Cape Town, that beautiful city near the Cape of Good Hope, which is likely to run out of water soon. “Day Zero”, estimated a few weeks ago to occur April 16, has now been pushed back to May 11. At that point, most water taps will be shut off, and the 3.7 million residents of Cape Town will have to travel to one of 200 designated points to receive allotments of water.

From now until “Day Zero”, Cape Town residents are asked to use only 50 liters – about 13 gallons – of water each day.

Last week The Guardian published a comparison of typical water usage with the 50-liter daily Cape Town allotment: A five-minute shower, for example takes about 141 gallons of water; flushing a toilet five times, 53 gallons. A dishwasher will use 116 gallons of water, and a washing machine 101.

In what may seem almost a profligate contrast, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that the average American family uses about 300 gallons of water each day. Seventy percent of that usage occurs indoors – washing, cooking, and cleaning, as examples.

A population boom, stressed infrastructure, and a prolonged drought have created are the main culprits in Cape Town. Since 1995, Cape Town’s population has grown by 79%, while water storage only increased by 15%, according to The Guardian.

As Capetonians are learning together, as the water shortage cuts across all social and economic lines. Writer Diana Kane, in an op-ed piece last week in the New York Times, described some measures now being taken: “Already, we have buckets under every faucet to capture water from hand washing, teeth brushing and food washing. This becomes the gray water we use to flush our toilets once or twice a day. Cafes and restaurants have signs asking customers to flush only when necessary. Showering has become a special (and rare) ritual; radio stations have put out playlists of songs lasting two minutes to help bathers keep it quick. Clothes are worn multiple times before washing; people try to keep their sheets clean longer by washing their feet before getting into bed. Some restaurants and gyms have replaced sinks with hand-sanitizing stations.”

These measures may strike us as extreme – living as we are at the edge of the world’s largest fresh-water system. While they are undoubtedly last-ditch efforts, some can be refashioned to fit a prudent lifestyle here. Many households already have rain barrels, the use of which cuts down on outside water use; and many gardeners are turning to native plants.

Inside, people might find it surprisingly easy to turn off faucets when water is not actually being used – when scrubbing pans, brushing teeth, as examples. Running dishwashers and washing machines only for full loads does not seem like a stretch. Nor does checking for leaking faucets or running toilets. Taking shorter showers, storing drinking water in the refrigerator.

The EPA recommends studying the water bill, to see not only much is due but also how much is used and purchasing products labeled WaterSense. The EPA's WaterSense program seeks to protect the future of the nation's water supply by promoting water efficiency and enhancing the market for water-efficient products, programs, and practices. The EPA’s website,, offers information on water-efficient products and practices, as well as utilities that offer rebates for WaterSense-labeled products.

Evanston is not likely to become a Cape Town. Still it seems we freely use our water. We can help sustain the planet drop by drop. 

Reader Comments

Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2018
Comment by: Jean SmilingCoyote

Cape Town's problem involves a bit more than has been mentioned. It's in a small region of Mediterranean climate, but uses local water. These regions can't support a huge population reliably on local water alone. Note the ancient Roman aqueducts. Los Angeles, also in a region of Mediterranean climate, gets water by aqueducts from hundreds of miles away, fed by snowmelt-rivers in high mountains. I've also been told that there are flush toilets on Santa Catalina Island which use salt water.

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