‘How hard can it be to live without water in a place set up to handle such a crisis?’

Joburger Gill Gifford visited her mom in water-scarce Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape for a week. This is how it went.

Towns in the Eastern Cape such as Alexandria, Bathurst, Boknes, Bosmansriviersmond, Cannon Rocks, Port Alfred and Kenton-on-Sea are short of water.
Towns in the Eastern Cape such as Alexandria, Bathurst, Boknes, Bosmansriviersmond, Cannon Rocks, Port Alfred and Kenton-on-Sea are short of water.

Cape Town may have dodged the Day Zero bullet, but some parts of the country have long been living with dry taps and rely on their own JoJo tanks and intermittent municipal water supply.

The coastal town of Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape is one such area. The dire situation in the Ndlambe municipality has hit Alexandria, Bathurst, Boknes, Bosmansriviersmond, Cannon Rocks and Kenton-on-Sea. Dam levels are low and the municipality blames the drought.

So how hard can it be to live without water in a place set up to handle such a crisis? For someone from Joburg who is used to fresh water at the turn of a tap, it is very difficult. Like a Survivor, only in my case it lasted an entire week.

I went to visit my mother, who lives in a well-established retirement village in Port Alfred. Forewarned of the crisis, I arrived with clean hair and the knowledge that there would be no proper washing for the duration of my seven-day stay. My clothes would not be washed, so I had to take what I needed or prepare for repeat wearing.

Life in the retirement village is not quite the same as for those in the town because the village has its own storage tank which it is able to fill when municipal water becomes available. Residents have the privilege of this to draw on.

The retirement village is out to ensure that each resident has a supply of 5,000 litres of water at any one time. My recently widowed mom has a 3,000 litre tank and another 5,000 litre backup supply — more than she needs for herself, but less than ideal a month ago when my dad was around.

Residents in the town have to live according to a roster system of water days, which doesn’t always work and those in higher areas suffer more than others as pressure problems mean they receive less frequent supply.

My mom’s house has two bathrooms which both have to be used, or else they quickly start to smell strongly of sewerage when water stands too long in the pipes. So she has developed a system of double toiletries and an alternating shower routine split between the two. It eases when she has family come to stay.

My mother is a careful, frugal woman who composts her kitchen waste, recycles her rubbish and compacts all her plastic into eco-bricks for a housing system nearby. And she is militant about conserving water.

This means that showers are minimal and short, and not very warm. My mom requires that you switch on the hot water through a shower phone handset which you place in a bucket to collect clean water while it heats up. During this time you quickly undress and start to soap yourself down.

Once the water is warmish you clip the handset into the overhead holder. The bucket of clean water is yours for your one permitted toilet flush of the day. The now-warm water collecting in the basin is  greywater to be used for the garden — among other things, to water a huge granadilla vine battling for survival. It is understood that you  turn off the tap as quickly as possible, so there is minimal greywater waste.

Municipal water supply times — detected by the sound of the not-quite-full toilet cisterns suddenly filling up properly — mean it’s the opportune moment to do a load of washing. My mom watches the machine cycle and when it reaches the last rinse she pulls the outlet pipe from the waste drain so that it empties the soapy waste into a basin. Not everyone in the retirement home is able to do this as some cannot dislodge their pipes and others are not strong or mobile enough to lift and carry basins of water — either used to water the garden or flush the toilet.

Life is a constant game of switching between own water and water supply — worked out by the humming of pumps and pipes. When the taps are dry, toilet cisterns don’t fill and have to be replenished by bucket. This means that in most homes, cistern lids remain permanently removed.

Toilets use a significant amount of water, so flushing is kept to a minimum. “When it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down” is the general guide.

Dirty dishwater, after being used again and again, is finally used to water pot plants.

It’s an ongoing survival routine that has become normal life in towns where turning a tap is no guarantee of a cup of drinkable water, and a hot bath is nothing more than a dream.