Managing water: lessons in my father's house


It seems Capetonians are heeding the call to save water. The City of Cape Town says water consumption is edging closer to its saving target.

He is eighty-seven-and-a-half years old. As in the early years of life, so in the twilight period one begins to count in fractions, perhaps because life is once more seen to be more precarious, each day valued, nothing taken for granted. He was born in the Great Depression, months after the Great Crash of 1929. He knows South Africa in three incarnations: the colonial period of his childhood and early adulthood, the apartheid extension of that horror through his middle age, and the post-apartheid period of his old age. He used to be poor; he is not rich now, but his needs are met, such that he lives more comfortably than many people he lives among.

The first time he had water running into his home he was already in his forties. Well into his forties. It was a home he had built for his family with his own hands. And it was only cold water. The toilet was still an outhouse. Other people’s fathers and sons collected the waste on a weekly basis. It was the world they lived in, and they made do. Flushing toilets were the things of the factories he worked in, and the schools his children attended. They were lucky, those children, or most of them, that they were city dwellers. In a country of deprivation they had such small concessions as flushing toilets in their second-class schools. He now lives in a house others have built; the toilet and bathroom are inside the house; he is lucky to have several taps available to him. 

Now, after forty years of having grown accustomed to water hot and cold running into his house, this old man who has survived World War II, once more has to ration. As a child of the 1930s, of course, he is infinitely capable of doing just that. His property has a dark green dot on it, on the map that the city officials have made public. He won’t see the dot, because that technological innovation he has largely ignored, despite one of his older sons trying to introduce him to the world of knowledge now available via the internet. He prefers books. But he is a good citizen the map says. He does not need the affirmation of the dot for those who know him to know this.

Water. It’s always been everywhere, but he has always used it sparingly, the old man, even when he was middle aged. It was not there when he was young, and like many who grew up in circumstances of deprivation, he has always had a mistrust of the certainty others have that the good times are here to stay. He now manages a household of four people, and a dog. He has a garden. Fig trees have always been important to him. They are reminders of his childhood, and his children continue to visit him every January and February expecting figs. But he has stopped watering the plants with the hose: it used to be his way of ending the day, of calming himself down.

He took over the gardening from his wife, really. Throughout the years of poverty she always had flowers and vegetables to tend, and later, fruit trees. She wrestled productive food for the family from the sandy, impoverished soil, first without running water, later with it, and at the end, sparingly. She was good at it; he is less so, but after her death, his attempts at maintaining the garden is his tribute to her. He certainly could not keep the house as spotless as she had done for decades. But now, the water was failing. How did she do it, all those years, with limited water supply? His younger children wonder about this as well. How had their mother done it, kept a home not only clean, but absolutely clean, without hot and cold running water?

The system he has designed and rigged up is meant to reuse as much water as possible. Water for bathing is no longer let down the plug hole. Dishes are washed in a portable basin. All grey water is stored in buckets for use in either the cistern or the garden, depending on quality. And he is a martinet, the old man, fiercely policing the water use of the household. He does this not because he stands to gain in the long term; he is facing the health challenges people his age find their days blighted by. His own death is no longer a distant prospect; every day that he wakes is a blessing. He does it out of principle: it is the refutation of moral indolence and intellectual torpor which drives his decisions to use water so sparingly it is painful to observe. 

Elsewhere in the city that he lives in, people who benefited from those crimes against humanity which deprived him and his family across much of the twentieth century, and their children, are boasting about how they are adapting to the new crisis. They are posting pictures of themselves doing daily activities using as little water as possible. One can begin to see the old man’s point of sticking to books and newspapers, rather than that world wide web of ‘infotainment’ purporting to be facts. There is so much which would enrage him, and he has to manage what time he has left better. In neighbourhoods far away from his, people boast of boreholes on their property boundaries. The old man knows a thing or two about aquifers and the water table; he and his deceased wife grew up with well water in this place which they are now calling the first city to be thus affected by climate change.

It is new to the rich, this way of living with a limited water supply. And many among the newly rich seem to have forgotten what it was like, that life lived until so recently, and still lived by millions all around us. One of the old man’s children remembers the blue plastic drum in which clean water was stored in the kitchen, presumably from the outside tap. That child also remembers liquid paraffin drums used to heat water for bathing on open flames; the hot water would be poured into the large zinc bath sometimes, but mostly into smaller plastic baths. There is even a photograph of that child, as a toddler, stepping out of such a bath in the second bedroom of the house the old man had built.

So long ago, so far away … right next door, all around us. Derrick Jensen has pointed out that the only sustainable way of living on the planet may require us to learn from our Stone Age ancestors, and from those people who continue to live in cultures which live in those patterns. The old man is by no means living a Stone Age existence, but he is not making any spectacle of his own scale-back. He advises his neighbours when they ask him, but tries against the grain of his personality not to become strident about it. His daughter brings him bottles of water for drinking and cooking, and shares her father’s sorrow at the withering plants. The gooseberry bushes won’t carry this year, the mint is dying back, and the figs are later and smaller than they were twenty years ago.

His life over the twentieth century has prepared him for this blighted existence now. The water is running out, and has been for years. The newspapers first warned about this in 1990, when he was sixty years old. There were more warnings in 2007, when he was seventy-seven. Folks taking photographs of their own noble sacrifices don’t seem to impress him: he is neither impressed nor incensed; he ignores these performances of newfound civicmindedness. People like him, people he has known his whole life, have always done these things, not out of the display of their fine spirits, but out of principle, or necessity.

He is eighty-seven-and-a-half years old. The place he lives in is running out of water. He has no plans to move elsewhere, not again, not at his age. His wife is buried here. He makes do, he will continue to make do, with the help of his children. Like so many others. He won’t be featured in the campaigns about saving water; people like him aren’t seen to have much to teach the rest of the world. They just get on with it, without fanfare, trying to leave the world as they found it, or a little better. Saving water is not a public relations campaign for him, and people like him. It is a matter of survival. We have much to learn from the least valued among us.