In the midst of Cape Town's worst drought in more than 100 years, the imperative to save water has been taken seriously by residents. While facing down Day Zero, the day Cape Town's taps were expected to run dry, the city managed to cut residential water usage from 1.2-billion litres per day in February 2015 to around 520-million litres per day by March 2018. According to recent research, saving at this scale is a world first.
Residential water saving has been accompanied by the efforts of organisations that have heeded the call to curb usage. Included in these are some Cape Town schools that enthusiastically took up the challenge to save water.
When Day Zero seemed imminent at the beginning of this year, concerns were raised over whether the city had plans in place to keep schools open if and when the taps ran dry. The Western Cape education department (WCED) issued a media release in January outlining its plans to ensure that if Day Zero were to become a reality, schools would remain operational.
The plans included WCED support mechanisms and suggested interventions for those schools most at risk. In addition, school principals were called on to educate learners and their parents about the necessity of saving water.
A number of school principals and educators didn't hesitate to take action. Bergvliet High was one of the first schools to make the news early in the year, when principal Stephen Price told Cape Talk that the school had made significant savings in its water usage after calling on parents for suggestions on how to save water.
Some of the measures put in place were getting parents to assist in giving their children bottled water to bring to school, closing over-used taps, limiting access to toilets, providing hand sanitisers, and using one basin to wash hands.
Soon afterwards, in February, four Cape Town boys' schools – Wynberg, Bishops, SACS, and Rondebosch – put their heads together to publish a joint statement, saying it was every Capetonian's civic duty to conserve water and that therefore, they would commit to making changes to their water consumption.
Among other efforts, they decided on a "severely curtailed" sports programme, with some events being cancelled and practices reduced. They also committed to educating their learners about the necessity of saving water and planned to help surrounding schools by sharing their grey water.
In the same month, parents of Bergvliet Primary learners received a letter from principal Brandon Paulse that outlined the school's water-saving efforts. "We are committed to doing all we can to manage the water problem in our province," he wrote.
Like the high school, the primary school encouraged learners to bring their own drinking water to school and provided hand sanitisers for use in toilets and classrooms. The school closed older toilets that used greater volumes of water, and started using buckets and basins to catch used water. A roster was drawn up for learners to take turns bringing wet-wipes to school for cleaning of hands and surfaces.
The school's swimming pool is being topped up with treated water from the borehole, and this water is also being used for maintenance tasks. The school's water meter is now checked twice a day to monitor consumption, and a so-called "drought uniform" has been implemented, which allows learners to come to school in their sports uniform on days when they have sport or physical education. This "helps reduce the washing of two uniforms".
Schools' water-saving efforts have been aided by projects such as the Shoprite Group's Smart Water-Meter Challenge. A collaboration with a start-up company Bridgiot, the project involves the installation at schools of a smart water-metering device called Dropula, nicknamed "Count Dropula". The device is attached to the municipal water meter and is designed to help schools control water consumption by notifying the user via SMS or email when there is excessive water usage.
If savings continue at the current rate, and with sustained effort on the part of residents, businesses, and schools alike, it might be entirely averted.
The Dropula was piloted at Hector Peterson Secondary and later installed at 100 Western Cape schools. Jurie Erwee, Bridgiot COO, says that the project has saved "more than 300 kilolitres per day and a total of more than 50 megalitres to date. One of the most significant impacts has been at [a primary school], where water consumption has been reduced from about 50 kilolitres a day in November, to about 15 kilolitres a day since the end of January."
A tweet by Bridgiot at the end of February announced that savings aided by the device have been substantial: "Savings in February: 7.44-million litres. Cumulative savings nearly 25-million litres at 134 schools. Next target: 1-million litres per day." The Shoprite Group extended the water-saving challenge to other organisations, and by early March, 138 schools had been reached.
Cape Town learners have also benefitted from educational drives such the #SaveWater campaign, which helped spread the water-saving word to learners. A collaboration between the department of water and sanitation, Operation SA and Miss Earth South Africa, the School Roadshow was launched in February and aimed to reach 100 schools. Yusuf Abramjee, chief ambassador of the project, wrote early in March that they had surpassed their goal by visiting more than 120 schools.
The aim of the initiative was to encourage learners to become "water heroes" who would curb their usage and encourage their peers to do the same. Learners worked through educational worksheets and participated in activities around the topic, and were asked to come up with ideas for saving water.
"It was very special to connect with the learners," says executive director of Miss Earth and international climate and human rights activist Catherine Constantinides. "This was the biggest Cape Town-based project we've executed in such a short time. We thought it would be difficult to gain access to schools, but we had the most incredible response from school principals."
It is undoubtedly through conscientious efforts like these that Cape Town has been able to so drastically reduce its water usage and forestall the threat of Day Zero. If savings continue at the current rate, and with sustained effort on the part of residents, businesses, and schools alike, it might be entirely averted.