Troubled Water

'Water Restrictions', a poem by Athol Williams (
‘Water Restrictions’, a poem by Athol Williams (

As Day Zero – the day when the taps in Cape Town will run dry – approaches at certain speed, I find myself increasingly worried and confused. Worried for obvious reasons. Confused and confounded by the clamour and chaos of our collective responses to this crisis.

Cape Town is hardly the first city in the world to be facing Day Zero. In fact, as has been pointed out by many, lots of people living in and around Cape Town already live out Day Zero day in and day out. It can’t have escaped the notice of even the most obliviously privileged amongst us that the way we live now – catching every last drop of grey water, flushing only when absolutely necessary, doing what we can to avoid gratuitous and wasteful personal grooming – is how many in our city and around our country live, as a matter of course. The Cape’s middle and upper classes are not the first. If anything, we are experiencing a relative drop in the dry ocean of suffering wrought by climate change. day zero

It is especially disturbing, then, that our response has been inline with our imagined exceptionalism, our specialness. We feel aggrieved for many reasons, but partly because this shouldn’t be happening to us. This has been evidenced by the various articles and letters to the press going around. In disbelieving and apoplectic tones, the writers move from blaming the incompetence of the city to crying foul and accusing the powers that be of flat-out lying to us about the growing crisis. It’s as if we just cannot believe that this could never happen here, to us. We are Cape Town, permanent fixture on international ‘Best of’ and ‘Places to Visit Before You Die’; home of The Mountain; well-run domicile of the most powerful opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. And yet, it’s happening alright. Each hot, dry day takes us closer to the abyss. And why wouldn’t it? As climate change creeps upon us all, it stands to reason that we would experience our own terrifying version of it.

Our response has been to dig our heads deeper into the shifting sands and double down on our assumed exemption by consuming even more voraciously. Believe me, I’m not judging anyone. I too have been spending more and more on various plastic products – buckets, bottled water, and so on – in fits of panic and outrage. I don’t know what good it is all doing.  While I am convinced that while it will probably keep my family sane, watered and somewhat clean in the short to medium term, it will probably mean more problems for my city, this country and the world in the long term. And those problems will probably affect the most vulnerable members of my society. Should our leaders not have taken the earliest possible opportunity to launch a broader discussion on how our consumption patterns are swallowing the earth alive? I get that sometimes the best way to approach a problem as intractable as this is to convince individuals of their power to make changes in their own spheres of influence. But such encouragement should be tempered with constant reminders that we need to recognise that we are not islands. We need to go beyond our own bathrooms and kitchens and gardens. We need to remember that not all of us have bathrooms, kitchens or gardens. What will the frenzied consumption now mean for all of us, and the poorest amongst us, in the long-run? By focusing myopically on the individual, we have somehow managed to perpetuate the toxic exceptionalism that has characterised much of the response to this crisis.  We have retreated, via our wallets, further into our homes, forgetting that this crisis is a piece of a much scarier whole.

So if, or when, Day Zero comes and goes, some things will change, but the things that will make the most difference in terms of our planet will remain the same.

'When it Rains', a poem by Athol Williams (
‘When it Rains’, a poem by Athol Williams (

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