My home city is fighting for its life ... we should all take note

Sometimes a story just gets under your skin, or perhaps I should say, seeps into the deepest crevices of your life.

No story has filled my mind and affected my thinking more than the one I wrote this week about Cape Town’s water crisis.

All the people in the town of my birth are currently facing the prospect that soon they will reach for their taps, but they will be dry.

It is a terrifying prospect and one no city of this size has contemplated before.

There have been plenty of warning signs for many years, but that does not make this crisis any less startling.

The Mother City, as we call it, has for thousands of years provided comfort, sanctuary and abundance to many who sought shelter along her shores, on the slopes of her mountains and on her fertile flats - my immigrant family among them.

Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Khoi people raised vast herds of fat-tailed sheep and Nguni cattle on the rich grasslands of the Cape.

When the Dutch were looking for a refreshment station for their ships travelling to modern day Indonesia, they chose the Cape for the abundant supply of fresh water that tumbled down the sides of Table Mountain.

And they went on to establish many of South Africa’s famous wineries that have prospered because the region’s Mediterranean climate is perfect for noble cultivars.

This is traditionally a hospitable place, not harsh and forbidding like South Africa’s hot, dry interior with its semi-deserts and regular droughts.

Now perhaps it is this fame as the Fairest Cape that has been in part its undoing.

Since the end of apartheid, the Cape’s moderate climate has attracted wealthy overseas buyers to its gorgeous properties, and droves of tourists to its dramatic sites.

That’s generated thousands of thirsty restaurants and new hotels, with their toilets, showers and pools.

And with that - more jobs, attracting more people both from South Africa rural areas and from other parts of the continent.

Now, after three of the driest years since 1938, the city is at breaking point.

It is heartbreaking.

Reading and writing about Cape Town’s crisis and the stress on its people - my people - has been like finding out about a good friend who is gravely wounded.

My first impulse has been to try to do something, but from this distance it’s nigh impossible.

So I’ve started to obsess about our own water usage, seeing wastage and excess everywhere.

I now take short, stop-start showers, and keep the pressure super low.

Even then I feel guilty I’m not standing in a bucket to collect the water for use in our toilets.

I have realised I have no idea how much water we use for a load of washing or a dishwasher cycle, so have no way of working out whether I should be economising. 

When a shelf of bulk bottled water recently caught my eye in a supermarket, I felt a flicker of an impulse to stock up, before reminding myself I now live in Sydney, which has plenty of free-flowing water.

But for how long?

All around me I see how we take more than we need: the tap that runs while the kids brush their teeth, the cold water that drains away while we wait for it to warm up, the litre upon litre we use to clean a car, or a patio.

At the top of our road a leak in a pipe has been spilling fresh, clear, drinking water onto the road for more than two weeks now, and no one has cared to stop it.

There is some offical-looking tape near the small spring, suggesting somebody knows about it, yet still it streams out, running into the road so passing cars smear it across the intersection as if nobody’s life depended on it.

This is the behaviour of people who have had too much, too easy, for too long, and if Cape Town teaches us anything it’s that there is no reason at all to think it’ll last.

Four years ago Cape Town’s dams were full and life there was good, now the city’s residents are discussing how much bleach to add to a basin of dishwater to prevent it smelling after the third day.

If this once verdant place of bounty can slip so far so fast, it should be a warning to us all.