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The Cape Town Water Diet: Living on 50 liters of Water

Prepared Through Reflections on Clean Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Month

In modern history, no city in the developed world has ever run out of water. But in a historic first, the city of Cape Town in South Africa is predicted to run out of water on July 9, 2018, due to the harsh drought brought on by climate change, human influence, and the strong El Niño.

In response to the water crisis, its citizens are rationed to 50 liters (L) of water a day and charged expensive water tariffs if they use more than allotted. To put this in perspective, Canadians use on average 330 L of water per day. A Capetonian household ‘wasting’ this much water would be fined the equivalent of $730 to $2200 CAD.

When Cape Town reaches "Day Zero", the municipal government will turn off the water taps to its residents. Water will be further limited to 25 L per person per day, which people can collect from one of 200 available water stations servicing a population of 4 million people.

To try and empathize with the struggle of Capetonians, I decided to challenge myself to use 50 L of water a day, whether I am at home, work, or elsewhere. Overall, it was pretty difficult and I could only keep it up for two days (Sunday and Monday), because rationing water was particularly challenging during work days.

I realized that I had to carefully plan my day around water. Sunday is normally my day to catch up on life, where I clean the apartment, do my laundry, and cook food for the week. However, using the washing machine or dishwasher would consume more water than I was allocated. Instead, I rationed 15 L of water for cleaning in order to mop the floors, wash the counters, hand wash my clothes, and clean all the dishes from my food preparation. I decided to cook lasagna for the work week, so I had to use an addition 2 L of water to boil the water for the noodles (what a waste!).

Without easy access to water, all the Sunday chores took much longer than normal - with the exception of showering. A ninety second shower uses fifteen litres of water! So, I had to speed-wash and shave in ninety second flat – there was no time to wait for the water to warm up or adjust it to the perfect temperature. Although I did plug the bathtub to collect the water, I made the mistake of not placing a bucket below me. After my shower, I had to spend time scooping all the shower water into a bucket so that I could use it to flush the toilet later on. With these water restrictions in place, I realized I use the bathroom way too often. With each flush using 6 L of water, I resorted to following the mantra, "If it's yellow, let it mellow."

On Sunday evening, I really wanted to exercise at the gym - but exercising would mean drinking more water, taking another (brief) shower, and creating more dirty clothes that I would have to hand-wash later. Exercising was just not feasible based on the amount of water I had left. By the time I accounted for drinking water, brushing my teeth, and washing my face, I had used up all of my 50 liters.

Going to work on Monday was also particularly difficult. I had to use the public bathroom twice and that took 12 L of my reserves. To cut down my water usage, I bought hand sanitizer to wash my hands, but they just didn’t feel clean. During work, I had to run several biochemistry experiments, and use my precious water reserves to clean the dirty glassware and wipe off my bench. By the end of the day, I didn’t have enough water left to clean the Tupperware container that I had used to pack my lunch.

My experience showed me that rationing water really challenged many aspects of my lifestyle. It is difficult for me to imagine a developed country like Canada running out of water, with our expansive great lakes that make up 20% of the worlds fresh water resources. How could Canada possibly run out of water? It is possible to run out of water, if we were hit by severe weather patterns or if we treated our freshwater resources as a commodity and sold it in bulk to other countries. I truly believe that water is a basic human right, and not a commodity. But now, I realize that having access to very abundant and cheap water means that I tend to be wasteful and inefficient with its use.

I challenge anyone reading this article to spend a day (or week, if you can manage) living on only 50 L of water - plan your day, figure out which amenities you will cut out, and recycle your water to make it stretch for the whole day!


NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey and water level chart by Joshua Stevens using data from South Africa’s Department of Water and Sanitation.

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