Listen to this article
Turn on a tap in many Cape Town restaurants or public restrooms and, instead of gushing water, you’ll be confronted by a fine spray. According to Mistifi, a company that makes a version of the nozzles that fit inside most taps, the simple alteration means that just one litre of water is used for every nine that would flow from a normal tap.
Marcel van der Merwe, the owner of Mistifi, says the idea came to him during the worst of the drought when Capetonians were being warned about a possible Day Zero.
On that day — first announced in late 2017 — the authorities were going to ration millions of citizens to 25 litres a day, conjuring up images of people queueing with bottles and buckets at water pipes guarded by soldiers.
At the time of the drought, Mr van der Merwe had come across a spray nozzle made by Swedish company Altered, but he judged the device too expensive for the South African market.
Instead, he figured out how to make a cheaper version by taking an off-the-shelf irrigation nozzle and fitting it inside a tap-sized casing, manufactured in Cape Town.
His company sold between 2,000 and 3,000 of its nozzles before a competitor with better distribution channels started importing a similar device from Germany.
Now that the rains have come and reservoirs have been replenished to more comfortable levels, sales of the devices have begun to dry up, he says.
Mr van de Merwe, who once ran his own frozen yoghurt company, is typical of what Alison Lewis, dean of the faculty of engineering at the University of Cape Town, calls “garage inventors”.
As the water shortage began to bite in 2017 and 2018, these entrepreneurs rigged up dozens of quick fixes designed to alter plumbing, recycle greywater from dishwashers or baths, or monitor water usage.
One company, Water from Air, came up with a device to collect water from condensation. The largest variant of the device can extract up to 1,500 litres a day.
Other examples, according to CapeTownMagazine.com, include Dropula, a device invented by a professor from Stellenbosch University that combines a meter with an electronic dashboard to monitor water usage; containers invented by students from the University of Cape Town to collect shower water for reuse in toilet-flushing; and a Facebook group called Water Shedding Western Cape for swapping tips on water-saving ideas.
Lawson Naidoo, a civil rights campaigner, says that, like many residents of Western Cape province, he fitted a device in his home to catch the rainwater that would normally be taken away by a downpipe. “One of the most impressive things is how the people of Cape Town have responded by cutting water consumption,” he says.
As far as critics are concerned, the avoidance of Day Zero owes more to the improvisation and inventions of ordinary Capetonians than to any well thought-out response from the authorities.
Mr van der Merwe, the owner of Mistifi, says: “The innovation was amazing and a lot of people came up with great ideas. But for me the Cape Town municipality was a bit slow. They could, for example, have installed nozzles like mine at schools. They were aware of them but they didn’t. They just left us to go and market them.”
Detractors complain that local government in Cape Town, which is controlled by the Democratic Alliance, a party in opposition nationally, was slow to recognise the severity of the oncoming drought, despite years of warnings. Although mobile desalination plants were available, the authorities did not deploy them, critics say, relying instead on scare tactics to persuade people to cut back on water usage.
Instead of using technology and blue-sky thinking, says Ivor Ichikowitz, executive chairman of Paramount Group, a privately owned defence and aerospace company, Cape Town’s authorities relied on popular resilience. “I would hate to see the government applauded for that,” he adds.
Mr Naidoo says that is unfair. The government, he argues, was skilful with its messaging and encouraged the behavioural change needed to overt this and future water crises.
One can barely move in Cape Town these days without seeing a poster or sticker warning of impending catastrophe should people slack off in their water-saving vigilance. Even men’s lavatories are no escape. One notice seen in a Cape Town toilet proclaims: “Dam levels still critical: If it’s yellow let it mellow. If it’s brown flush it down.”
Mr Naidoo argues that this is the right approach. “People have changed the way they think about water,” he says. “This is going to be something we’re going to have to live with from now on.”
Trickledown effect: the water-savers
The South African group makes nozzles that fit inside most domestic taps to slow their flow. A simple alteration reduces the amount of water used to one-ninth of that of a normal tap, the group says. The company sold as many as 3,000 of the nozzles at R65 ($4.70) each before heightened competition and the drought breaking slowed demand.
The smart-metering devices were invented by a professor from Stellenbosch University and rolled out across several schools in Cape Town. The devices combine a meter with an electronic dashboard to monitor usage and encourage water-saving. The makers says the devices have saved about 400,000 litres of water a month at each school.