Every Town is Cape Town

If you have any friends in Cape Town, this might be a good time to invite them to come for a visit. A long visit and a drink.

Cape Town, South Africa is on track to become the first major city to run out of water. This is not a drill. “Day Zero”, the day that the city is predicted to officially run dry, has been extended from mid-April to mid-July, but that’s small comfort to the region’s residents.

The causes behind what some have called this “Mad Max” scenario include poor planning and social inequities coupled with a three-year, once-in-a-millennium drought, but at this point there’s little patience for looking backward. A crisis of these proportions focuses the mind on the present like none other.

The closest I can come (which isn’t very close) to imagining what those in Cape Town are feeling is my memory of the summer of 2012.  By the end of August that year, close to 80% of the United States, excluding Alaska, was in severe drought. Most of my neighbors in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin adjusted for the heat and drought by turning on sprinklers and filling inflatable pools for kids and dogs. But not me. I couldn’t bring myself to take the easy, but in my mind short-sighted route, of leaning on Lake Michigan, our municipal water supply source for anything other than the indoor essentials.

Taking the self-flagellation route to the nation’s drought gave me more than humble brag rights. I didn’t mind watching my grass turn brown. I’d taken enough botany classes to know that grasses have, for the most part, evolved to handle heat and drought.  They may shut down, but beneath the brown leaves the roots are hunkered down waiting it out until the next drench.  Think of it as a botanical hibernation of sorts. Even my beloved flower beds, populated mostly with deep-rooted native perennials, would survive the drought.

What got me, however, was my vegetable garden.  To keep my basil, zucchini, and everything in between going after my rain barrels ran dry, I kept a bucket in the kitchen to collect vegetable rinse water and another in the bathroom where I could capture the gallon or so that it took to get the shower to warm up. If I didn’t already know it, that summer I learned the value of water.

My garden survived, as did I, but the summer of 2012 left its mark. I took from that summer was a sense of what desperation might feel like. I had alternatives. The grocery store, a literal cornucopia of fruits and vegetables from around the globe, was less than a mile away. The spigot, bringing cheap, high quality municipal water, was even closer.  None-the-less, the drought of 2012 was my drill. The sunbaked clay, deeply fissured from prolonged lack of water, reminded me with every barefoot step that we were yet another day without rain. I’ll never forget the hope that came when, finally, the months of crystal blue skies were interrupted with a pillow of clouds. Or the disappointment that came when the clouds took their moisture elsewhere.

At the time, I didn’t know much about Cape Town, and Cape Town didn’t know the realities of prolonged drought.  I was, however, in the midst of reading Charles Fishman’s newly published book The Big Thirst (2011) which devotes one entire chapter to spelling out life in Australia during its multi-year drought. The combination of reading about the dire situation in Australia and living through my own heat wave and drought left me with a long-term appreciation for knowing where my next drink will come from.

Worries about water security, isn’t just for people in far-flung places.  The United States has its share of examples where water supply routinely inches up to the brink of disaster.  California’s five-year drought, which didn’t officially lift until spring of 2017, felt eerily similar to what Cape Town is going through now. Arizona, a state of perpetual drought, taunts the devil with every new development.  Though groundwater aquifers can serve as a back-up source for a period of time, the state’s major cities of Tucson and Phoenix are entirely dependent on the Central Arizona Project, an artificial diversion of water from the Colorado River, to keep their economies going.  Because of the peculiar laws that oversee the allocation of Colorado River water between California, Arizona, and Nevada, if water levels get too low, and there isn’t enough to meet each state’s needs, Arizona gets bumped by California. Think about that before retiring to Scottsdale. Retirement isn’t much fun if you can’t flush the toilet.

If your water supply is secure today, be thankful. But don’t be smug.  Cape Town isn’t as far away as you might think.

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