145 litres of water a day? Learn to live on 50, like we had to in South Africa

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THE nation has been left high and dry this summer – with a severe lack of rainfall prompting hosepipe bans and curbs on paddling pools and barbecues.

But as we face having to curb our average water consumption of 145 litres per day — in the wake of the driest July since records began in 1836 — we could learn a thing or two from the South Africans, who faced a bigger crisis five years ago.


For three successive winters, the annual rains did not comeCredit: Reuters


Queues for water at natural spring in Cape TownCredit: Associated Press

I moved to Cape Town in 2017 and found myself in the middle of the worst drought the Western Cape province had seen in 100 years.

For three successive winters, from 2015 to 2017, the annual rains did not come and the reservoirs that surround the nation’s second biggest city of 4.6million people were nearly empty.

Cape Town’s then mayor, Patricia de Lille, came up with a controversial plan to tackle the crisis, dubbed Day Zero.

This was the day — projected to arrive in April 2018 — on which the city’s reserves would be at just 13.5 per cent and therefore unable to provide the under-siege city with uncontaminated water.

Once it arrived, the government would be forced to turn off supplies to homes and set up water points on street corners where residents would be expected to join huge queues to fill containers under the gaze of armed guards.

Cape Town was preparing to be the first major city in the world to run out of water.

There were genuine fears that such a disaster would materialise, bringing with it rioting, disease and economic collapse.

It was a shock for the inhabitants of a prosperous and cosmopolitan tourist destination. And they were determined to do what they could to avoid it.

While we all prayed for rain, households were ordered to restrict their daily use to 50 litres of water or face huge fines and the installation of meters at their homes that would cut off supplies beyond that level.

South Africans suddenly became very clued up on exactly how much water they used for their daily activities. A 90-second shower took up ten litres, a toilet flush nine. So that meant most families took it in turns to shower on different days, and restricted themselves to just one flush of the loo.

Pets drink one litre a day, brushing your teeth uses two, while cooking and food preparation need one litre of water — if you plan carefully.

House cleaning requires five litres and the average person needs about three litres per day for drinking water, tea and coffee.

With a washing machine full of clothes and other items requiring 70 litres and a dishwasher load nine litres, most people cut down to one laundry load a week and put the dishwasher on every three days.

At first there was a lot of complaining, but by early 2018 people had quickly realised that the government was serious and the taps would be turned off.

The thought of Day Zero and having to queue for hours in the sun to fill a container at a tanker on the street corner galvanized everyone into action.


Cape Town was preparing to be the first major city to run out of waterCredit: Getty


Households were ordered to restrict their daily use to 50 litres of water or face huge finesCredit: Reuters

Hotel staff removed the plugs from baths, put special shower heads on to reduce water use and emptied swimming pools, all of which hit the tourist trade badly, but Cape Town was desperate. However, the city’s mammoth efforts were not in vain. Day Zero was pushed further and further back.

Then, in the winter of 2018, the rains finally came. The reservoirs refilled and the restrictions that had been so feared were never implemented. Yet the threat had raised awareness of the value of water and how much we need it.

The population remains very switched on to saving and not wasting this resource, as they know Day Zero may not have been avoided completely — just pushed back.

Priya Reddy, Cape Town’s then director of communications, said: “It was the most talked-about subject but it needed to be. It was not a pretty solution — but it was not a pretty problem.

“It was a massive challenge and everyone pulled together in the worst drought in a century, but we did it, and the challenge now is to ensure our water is never ever wasted.”

There is plenty to learn from the people of Cape Town, who managed to reduce their daily usage of water from 600million litres a day to 450million litres.

Above are some of their tips for getting through the worst drought in living memory.


  • For toilets: If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.
  • Shower and wet yourself then turn off the shower. Soap and lather yourself. Then briefly use the shower to rinse off.
  • Put a bucket under the shower to collect all the water that runs off you and pour that into the toilet cistern for a free flush.
  • Wash your hair less often – it quickly and naturally adapts.
  • Put a brick in the cistern of your toilet so it fills with less water for each flush.
  • Change the shower head to an alternative that allows less water to flow.
  • Don’t use the sink for washing up, use a bowl. You can re-use the water in the bowl.
  • Steam or microwave your vegetables rather than boil in pans of water.
  • Only ever use the washing machine and dishwasher when they are full.
  • Put wood chippings or mulch on your flower beds to prevent evaporation and the growth of weeds that take water from your garden.
  • Wash your car on your lawn from a bucket of soapy water and rinse off using a clean bucket of water and a cloth.
  • Turn off the tap while brushing your teeth and shaving.

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