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Letting it Mellow in Cape Town


I hate that the sign above, in my hotel's bathroom in Cape Town, made me laugh so much. I was recently there in January with friends, and that city's severe drought was really not a laughing matter. Despite that Cape Town, known as one of the world's most beautiful places, may be the first major city to run out of water later this year, as tourists, we did not feel much pain. In fact, it almost felt we should have felt more pain (see below).

Around the city, we mostly saw references to the drought in tongue-in-cheek signs like "drink wine, not water" and assurances from establishments that they were doing everything they could to save water. Besides not flushing, our hotel only asked us to collect our shower water in a bucket and dump it into a larger bin in the hall. And there was no going in the pool, since the water was green. But we did not have to comply with any specific water limit, as residents must. Currently, locals are limited to using 50 liters (about 13 gallons) a day. By comparison, the average American uses about 380 liters of water daily.


Yet the name its leaders are using for the day the taps go dry, Day Zero, is apocalyptic (and eerily similar to Cambodia’s Year Zero, when the Khmer Rouge took power). In the case of a city of 4 million facing drought, apocalypse is probably appropriate. If Cape Town gets to Day Zero, its residents will have to line up at distribution points to pick up a limited amount of water from trucks and ration until they can go back for more. 

Some think Cape Town may not even reach Day Zero, like the husband in a Capetonian couple we met earlier in our trip. He thought the government was trying to scare residents into complying with water restrictions. He might be right. Authorities have pushed back the expected Day Zero a few times, from April to July. Nonetheless, he and his wife are doing everything they can, including collecting water from their shower and from rainfall and using it in their garden and to flush. 

It felt surprisingly mellow in Cape Town, like at this café in the city center.

It felt surprisingly mellow in Cape Town, like at this café in the city center.

Restaurants in Cape Town were not serving tap water, only bottled water for purchase

Restaurants in Cape Town were not serving tap water, only bottled water for purchase

As I was in Cape Town, I wondered whether Americans would tolerate the level of restriction on their behavior, even in extreme circumstances. Capetonians are fined and publicly shamed if they use more than their allotted limit. (Admittedly, not all Capetonians accept it either). If one of our cities faced a drought, would people act as individualistically as Americans so often do, trying to rig things for their benefit? Would rich people just pay the fines for over-use of water? I hope I’m being overly pessimistic, but I think about how much grief Jimmy Carter endured for asking Americans to conserve energy during that crisis. And that was decades before our president was the spitting embodiment of everything that is wrong with our country.

I also wondered about the ethics of tourism in Cape Town. Was it okay to welcome visitors at a time when water is such a scarce resource and people are forced to make big changes to their daily lives? Currently, Cape Town is not closed to tourism, but if you visit, it is worth reading up on how to conserve.