“Water shaming” will spread from Cape Town to US

"Water shaming" will spread from Cape Town to US

“Water shaming” is being credited for helping Cape Town, South Africa, make it through an extreme three-year drought. Faced with a rapidly approaching “Day Zero” that would force the city to shut off municipal water to its more than 3.7 million residents, officials in January launched an interactive Google map that allows people to see which households are staying within the water use limits–and which ones are not.

The dark green circles represent households staying well below the limit. Bright green indicates households that are approaching the limit.

It was a last-ditch effort to prevent the worst-case scenario of shutdown. “We have reached a point of no return,” City of Cape Town Mayor Patricia De Lille said at the time. “Despite our urging for months, 60% of Capetonians are callously using more than 87 litres per day. It is quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards Day Zero.”

Nearly three months later, the effort seems to have bought the city a reprieve until at least next year’s dry season. NBC News reports:

The city of Cape Town may have staved off the worst of a water crisis thanks to 90-second showers, police enforcement and a strong dose of public shaming.

A historic three-year drought has forced residents of this coastal city of 4 million to radically change their relationship with water as city restrictions limit each person to using no more than 50 liters, or 13.2 gallons, a day.

“Showers are just joyless now,” said Andie Reeves, 27, an artist and writer in the city. “You just need to clean your body and get out.”

Reeves and her three roommates have all made drastic changes at home, from reusing washing machine water to flush toilets to bathing over a bucket, making a long relaxing bath time a thing of the past.

“I used to have a lot of ah-ha moments in the shower,” added Keren Setton, 26. “Now I just don’t have those anymore.”

Cars have gone unwashed, toilets unflushed and gardens uncultivated in the all-hands-on-deck effort of Capetonians to save water, driven by social pressure as much as the city’s very public campaign.

Cape Town isn’t the first to use social pressure to change people’s water use habits. Sydney, Australia, went so far as to name water-wasters in local news media during a 2006-2009 campaign during an intensive drought. It was remarkably successful, and after the drought ended household water use remained well below pre-drought usage.

"Water shaming" will spread from Cape Town to US

The average American uses 88 gallons of water per day. Imagine having to cut back to the 13 gallons set as the limit in Cape Town, or even the 37-gallon limit imposed in Sydney.

Soon, many Americans won’t have to imagine it. They will be living it. Without urgent action to control fossil fuels, according to a 2016 study, much of the American Southwest is likely in the next few decades to begin experiencing mega-droughts as severe as the Dust Bowl but lasting far longer–three decades or more. The odds of one coming this century are 99 percent if precipitation decreases, as widely expected, and 90 percent if it remains the same. Water shaming will be the least of the worries of those living through it.

“This will be worse than anything seen during the last 2,000 years and would pose unprecedented challenges to water resources in the region,” said Toby Ault, a professor of earth science at Cornell University and lead author of the study, in a statement accompanying prior research. “As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this—we are weighting the dice for mega-drought conditions.”

The Atlantic, writing about Ault’s study, interviewed Jonathan Overpeck, a University of Arizona scientists who along with a colleague coined the term mega-drought in the 1990s. Overpeck spoke about the study’s two scenarios:

In the first, the world continues to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and a post-2050 “searing mega-drought” becomes a near certainty. In the second, carbon emissions soon begin to decrease, and the region sees about a 66 percent chance of a “warm mega-drought” in the second half of this century.

The “searing drought” possibility scares him most. Most research predicts that a climate-addled “searing mega-drought” would be much worse than anything described in the 2000-year-long store of evidence left behind in lake beds and tree rings. Toxic dust storms could rage across the region, making driving extremely dangerous. The vast majority of trees in the region would die. Agriculture would become all but impossible.

“The Southwest could be a really difficult place to live and make a living, at least as we know it today,” he told me. “It’s scary. I just cannot imagine a drought that long and that hot.”

A warm mega-drought, on the other hand, could probably be endured. (The water journalist John Fleck talked to Vox last month about how that could be done.) And even in a world with no climate change, mega-droughts happen every couple centuries, and the “natural” risk of one occurring in any given year is about 10 percent.

But making even the “warm mega-drought” a possibility will require a historic effort. Last week, the Paris Agreement, the first global treaty to limit carbon emissions, entered into force. But even if every country upholds its promises to restrict greenhouse-gas emissions, the world could still overshoot its 2-degree “emissions budget” by 2030.

A great storm is gathering, America, and its outer edges are already upon us. Our window of opportunity to greatly lessen the damage is rapidly closing. Water shortages, and water shaming, are coming. Many will be forced to drastically cut their water use; eventually, if we don’t take enough action now, even that won’t be enough, and masses of people will move out of the Southwest. Meanwhile, with rising sea levels causing constant nuisance flooding and hurricanes pushing deadly waters ever farther inland, millions of Americans also will be forced to move away from the East and Gulf coasts.

Will we face reality in time to weaken the gathering storm? The little children of today will want to know what we did to stop it, for they will be caught up in the midst of the storm, as will many generations after them. Pro-life means anti-fossil fuels.

About the author

David Backes

I have always been drawn to where the wild things are: the natural world around me, and the wilderness within. As a writer, speaker, and university professor, I have for decades focused on this combination of nature and the human spirit. In recent years, my spiritual journey has added another lens: social, environmental and intergenerational justice. Put it all together and you’ve got The Earth Keeper, a blog of integral ecology and the prophetic imagination. The Earth Keeper may at times make you feel hopeful or inspired; it may make you feel uncomfortable or defensive or even angry. I hope it often will be challenging, and always interesting.

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