Day Zero diary: Waterwise living in Cape Town

There’s one topic on everyone’s mind in Cape Town at the moment: the fact that we’re running out of water. I started changing my water habits  more than a year ago, since the second half of 2016, so I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned so far.

I’m middle class and can afford to do things like install a rainwater tank. I live in a house and I have my own car, so I’m fortunate to be able to do many of the things listed below. I don’t have children and I work from home, which makes saving water much easier. On the other hand, I do have a limited income. Boreholes and RO filter systems are out of my reach. My plans won’t suit everybody, but hopefully something in this post will help somebody else out there who’s in the same position.

Warning: bodily fluids and  bodily functions get discussed, so if that’s not your thing, maybe don’t read this post 🙂

What are your priorities?

The big lesson I’ve learned is that I had to change how I thought about water. Without clear priorities it’s hard to make decisions, and I go into a mental tailspin. The drought is outside of my control and I had to learn to accept the things that I can’t change, and focus on the things I can control.

My priorities, in order of importance, are:

1) Don’t get sick, or put other people’s health at risk.

2) Don’t damage the environment (really part of number one, if you think about it).

3) To be sensible about money.

4) Find ways to keep myself happy, ward off fear, depression and anxiety.

Reducing the amount of water you use can be profoundly challenging. It means you have to face deeply seated fears and prejudices. For example, hygiene is important, right? But hygiene doesn’t mean keeping clean and fresh and smelling like a rose. It means preventing the spread of bacteria, viruses, molds, things that can make people sick.

Smelling sweaty doesn’t make you sick. Neither does having greasy hair. Having a bathroom that smells a bit of urine also doesn’t make you sick.

On the other hand, being sweaty, greasy, and dealing with stinks does impact on my number 4 priority, which is staying happy. Because of this I find ways to stay as clean as I can and keep my environment as pleasant as I can, using the absolute minimum of water.

Getting water

We use three sources of water. Municipal water, grey water, and rainwater. Since we use the absolute bare minimum of municipal water, we have very little grey water as a result. For this reason rainwater is an important part of our plan. We are fortunate to live in a house with a roof and gutters. When it does rain (not often these days!) we can harvest and store the water. I spend a lot of time looking at the weather forecasts 🙂

This little rainy cloud icon is now my favourite image.

 Water tanks are expensive and they are hard to get hold of as the high demand has created waiting lists. Apart from our 1000 litre Nell tank, which is what we have space for and could afford, we have also installed 120 l bins on each of our gutter down pipes.

This was the cheapest way we could find to catch the most water. B installed a tap in each bin, made of irrigation components. The bins are raised on concrete blocks so that it’s easy to put a bucket under the tap.

There’s a hole in the lid so that the pipe can go right down into the bin.


Challenges for the future: cleaning the rain water. We have a first flush diverter on our 1000 liter tank so that the dust, bird poop and pollution that has settled on our roof doesn’t go directly into the tank, but the water is still not very clean.  When it rains after a long break, the water is murky and yellow. At the moment the plan is to use this water for flushing the toilet, washing clothes, etc. But we might need to find a way to filter it for drinking.

Storing and carrying water

I bought a couple more of the 120 l bins pictured below and use those for storing water that overflows out of the gutter bins. That means a certain amount of running around with buckets. We plan to connect these together with overflow pipes so that won’t be necessary any longer. These aren’t the best value for money-per-liter storage, but at the time the bigger barrels were either not available, or too expensive.

Our plastic jerry cans can be a pain to pour with, as they only have one handle and no air hole. One handle makes it awkward to hold a heavy can full of water as you’re pouring it, and you can easily hurt your back. The absence of an airhole means it’s hard to pour without splashing and spilling.  Air flows into the container to replace the water that is pouring out of it, and if the only opening for the air is the one the water is flowing out of, this creates turbulence. The water gurgles and gouts rather than pouring smoothly.

The solution is to make a small hole or two, no bigger than about 2 mm wide. This is enough to allow air into the container while water is pouring out of it. Work carefully and slowly when making the hole so as not to crack the plastic.

For the handle, tie some strapping around the container and secure with gaffer tape. It doesn’t look pretty, but it’s lasted surprisingly well, and makes it much easier to handle the can.

We also found that this “blue chem” pool sand extractor pump works great to get the last little bit of water out of the bath and bucket. Scooping gets old quickly, and it scratches the bath too.  This pump works like a big syringe, drawing about 2 liters of water into its body, and then letting you squirt it out into a bucket. It saves your back, although it gives a good arm and shoulder workout, accompanied by a jolly farting sound as you push the water out.

Toilet: yellow, brown and red.

Up to now we’ve been flushing the toilet with grey water from washing ourselves, our clothes and our dishes,  as well as rainwater. Of these, dish and clothes water is by far the stinkiest and dirtiest. You can’t really store it, especially in warm weather. More on that later.

Everybody knows the mantra of “if it’s yellow, let it mellow, and if it’s brown, flush it down”. Flushing less means using less water. But it’s really not ideal to have your pee sit in the toilet bowl for hours. While various enzyme products and vinegar certainly help, you do end up with a stinky bathroom. Not the worst thing in the world, but it impacts on my priority number 4, happiness!  And what about when you get your period? What are you supposed to do “when it’s red” ?

These days, we pee in containers and pour our pee down the drain outside. When we have a bit of excess greywater we use it to dilute some pee and pour it on our plants: excellent fertiliser. I wish I could use neat pee on the plants, but apparently that will eventually kill them. Sometimes I’ll pour a little bit of vinegar or Pro Bio septic tank stuff down the drain to keep it from stinking.

What do I pee into, you ask? Men can use bottles, but what about women? Squatting over a bucket is not ideal. Well, I use a oval one liter yogurt container of the Pick & Pay brand. It’s the perfect shape (narrow to fit between the thighs) and has a tight fitting lid. Every now and then I flush the container out with a touch of diluted Pro Bio septic tank liquid or vinegar. This also makes having my period much easier, since most of the blood ends up in this neat little plastic container which can be poured separately down the drain.

Another mostly female issue is toilet paper. Women wipe more than men do because of the way we pee, and if you put all that paper in the toilet, without flushing every time, it will soon block up.  Solution: small bin with a lid next to the toilet. All the pee paper goes in there, and gets emptied into a bin outside. Some people apparently burn this paper but I don’t have anywhere I can easily burn things 🙂

I thought this  pee paper bin would stink, but it doesn’t. Empty it frequently, and wipe it out with a bit of vinegar every now and then. We are planning to build a composting toilet, but it’s a challenge when you don’t have a garden.

Washing yourself

One of the great ironies of this drought is that middle class people like me have had to learn how to wash ourselves in the way that is perfectly normal for the majority of South Africans. It’s surprisingly easy to stay clean without using lots of water.  You don’t need to wash yourself every day, just sponge armpits and crotch as needed.

I know that not many people will want to do this, but one of the best ways I’ve found to save water is to buzz-cut my hair very short. I feel cleaner, look neater, and don’t need to use liters of water keeping my hair clean.

Once every 3 or 4 days, I  wash myself and my hair thoroughly in about 5 liters of water. I use a small plastic tub with clean water to start with, and stand in a large plastic tub to catch the water that runs off me as I wash. A sponge works well to soak up clean water and squeeze it out over myself.  Another pro-tip: I use body lotion instead of soap. It works the same as soap as far as cleaning goes. In fact, people who are allergic to soap wash themselves like this all the time. The reason this saves water is that, unlike soap, it’s not harsh on your skin. It’s not absolutely crucial to rinse of every speck of body lotion, although I find that it rinses off easily in any case.

When I’m clean I apply my mixture of  scented cream, a scoop of aqueous cream with a tiny, tiny smidge of clove oil and a drop of essential oil. An oil that smells nice, like rose geranium or mandarin. The practical reason for this is that the clove oil kills bacteria, and works well as a deodorant. The other reason is that it smells good and makes me happy.  Clove oil by itself is nasty stuff and can burn you, so make sure it’s well diluted.

I also indulged and bought myself plastic bowls and sponges in attractive colours. It was a cheap way to lift my mood. A little bowl in every wash basin helps catch all those little trickles of water as you rinse your toothbrush, or your hands.

Washing clothes

We only wash our clothes when they are truly dirty. This means hanging them out to air and wearing things more than once. Another trick is to freeze sweaty garments for at least 24 hours in a ziplock bag. This kills the smell-causing bacteria and means you can wear it at least once more. Freezing B’s t shirts has means that we now do our laundry only once every 2 weeks, instead of once a week.  This is a big saving of water, as our machine uses about 60 liters for a wash.

Using the right detergent is important too. For some reason our front loader machine produces very dirty water that gets stinky very quickly, if you’re catching it in a bucket and intend to use it to flush the toilet, like we do. Washing our clothes in Pro Bac detergent (pictured above) helps, as it has the necessary enzymes and probiotics to deal with the stink-causing bacteria, and it means the water can stand for a bit longer before it smells like the thing from the black lagoon. Pro Bac is also not harmful to the environment, so I’m fulfilling my first two priorities, health and environmental sustainability.

I’ve experimented with using rain and grey water in our front loading washing machine. Perfectly possible. I just pour it into the soap dispenser until the pump stops going and the washing cycle starts. It does mean hanging around to fill the machine again between rinses, but I have a plan about that too…watch this space 🙂

Washing dishes.

Washing dishes only once a day means piles of dirty things attracting flies. To prevent that, I pile everything into a container with a lid.  This container doesn’t only stop the flies, but it is also such a pretty colour that gives me shock of colour-happiness every time I see it.

We also have a furry pre-dishwashing machine called Pippin.

It’s a hard job, but he’s up for the challenge! Once he’s cleaned out all the juices and bits, it means I can give the dishes a thorough wash with soap and water without the water getting quite so dirty quite so quickly.

Dishes get washed in a plastic bowl that fits inside the sink so that none of the water goes down the drain, and we can use it to flush the toilet. Remember to check the murky water for lurking teaspoons. There’s something profoundly disturbing about having to fish cutlery out of your toilet.

Dishes get rinsed in another plastic bowl. These bowls get greasy and dirty, and that can be a health hazard. I pop the bowls, along with the washing up sponge, into the microwave and zap them for a minute or so to kill any bacteria. I also wipe the bowls out with…wait for it…vinegar. This also keeps the flies away.  Also notice the Pro Bac dishwashing liquid.  Using this means that I can use the greywater from washing dishes to water my plants.

Dish water can be very dirty. You can’t really keep it for more than a few hours before it becomes a stinky, oily, bacterial soup. Water that’s too dirty for the toilet (it does happen!) goes onto our plants.

Once we no longer have municipal water, we’ll have to find other ways to deal with dirty dishes. Eating straight out of the pot, maybe? I don’t want to use paper plates if I can avoid it. I don’t have a place I can burn them, and I don’t like the idea of adding to the pollution level.  I’ve already started thinking about what food to buy and cook. It’s ironic that the very foods that are easy to store in bulk, like rice, pasta, and oats, are also the ones that need the most water to cook.

So that’s the most important lessons I’ve learned so far. I hope somebody finds this useful.

Now, all we can do is wait to see what happens and try not to get too worried about this situation. Best thing: I found a beautiful place nearby our house where I can walk Pippin, surrounded with water 🙂


Just a note: I moderate comments here very closely. This is not a free-speech zone. I will delete any comment that isn’t kind, helpful, or positive.