Flushing aid for a drought-hit city

Posted on February 3, 2018


The Romans may have pioneered it and Thomas Crapper got a lot of the later credit, but the great boon of water borne sewage has become a looming crisis for the city of Cape Town. Struck by drought and decades of bureaucratic inaction, South Africa’s “Mother City” is running out of water — and facing a potential sanitation and public health nightmare.

The dams that provide water to this sprawling coastal city are all but dry and “Day Zero”, when the taps stop flowing, is drawing closer. Unless there is some totally unseasonal — and heavy — rainfall, Cape Town will become the first major city on earth to run out of water. Mid April is the Day Zero deadline — and that means tanker trucks and emergency supplies of drinking water, but none to flush away the tons of waste generated by more than 4 million residents.

Provincial and city authorities readily admit that the major problem is not dealing with slaking thirsts, but with sanitation. Most residents, it seems, have obeyed the injunction, taken apparently from Australia: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.”

The result has been much less water flowing through the sewage system and council workers are already having problems unblocking sewage pipes clogged with paper and assorted detritus that for years has been casually disposed of into the toilet bowls of the town.

So the call has gone out: please do not put even paper into the bowls, bag all soiled paper and other such solids and put them out for the landfills. Work is also underway in various suburbs to rally neighbourhoods to agree to “community flushes”. The idea is to have whole districts or even most of the toilets throughout the city being flushed at the same time, with the ensuing torrent of water-bearing waste being enough to flush out the pipes of the system.

But while community activists meeting this week in several of the city’s municipal wards were laying out plans for if and when Day Zero dawns, a degree of panic has set in. Plastic containers of all sizes are sold out in many parts of the city and bottled water has disappeared off supermarket floors and shelves as fast as it has been made available.

There are also queues of men and women, throughout the day and night, bearing an assortment of buckets and other containers, waiting their turns at roadside pipes where small mountain streams, long buried under suburban development, emerge and where, in the past, the water ran, uninterrupted, into the sea. “There is a degree of panic and it is unnecessary,” says provincial parliamentarian Mark Wiley. He is also concerned about the quality of the water taken this way.

It is a concern shared by local councillors and activists who this week began to outline a “communication strategy” to try to ward off panic while also preparing the citizenry for the worst. Although stressing that “Day Zero” may not happen, they plan to issue a “25 litre (5.5 gallon) challenge” to residents. “Let each of us see if we can make it on just 25 litres a day for just a couple of days. We’ll realise it’s not so difficult,” is the line adopted.

Twenty-five litres is the post Day Zero amount of water the city proposes making available each day to every citizen who requires it. Some, who have access to clean borehole and other sources and will be encouraged to share this. The same will apply to other sources of non-potable water that may be used for washing and providing the water necessary to fuel the community flushes.

Posted in: Environment