/ 5 April 2024

Shower hour: Water has become a dirty joke

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It is all down to the timing now. Leave work too late in the afternoon and by the time I get home the water will have been switched off. Leave for work too early in the morning and the water will not have been switched back on yet.

It just confirms what I have believed for a long time: being a conscientious worker is bad for your health — and hygiene.

Colleagues who sit near me at work have taken to enquiring anxiously whether the water was switched on the previous evening. Meaning, of course, did you manage to have a shower last night?

Before I go any further with this sad story, it has to be acknowledged that many people — from the cities to the towns to the villages — have never had a regular supply of water, never mind a flushing toilet. But there are also many people who pay their water bills at the end of every month and can rightly expect a regular supply of water in return.

Growing up as a white boy in a leafy Durban suburb during the 1960s and 1970s, water was never an issue. It was just something that gushed forth from the tap whenever it was needed. Baths were filled to the brim, toilets were flushed at will and the gardens were filled with those thirsty, large-leafed tropical plants so beloved by Durban homeowners and watered copiously. 

Emerging from a swim in the (E. coli-free) sea on weekends spent at the beach we could rinse off the salt at the handily placed freshwater showers. At least this was the case at the pristine “whites-only” beaches.

I was comfortably ensconced in the lies and propaganda cocoon of the apartheid government. It was only when I moved to Johannesburg in the 1980s that I began to realise the scale of apartheid’s crimes.

And I had to pay my own water bills.

Forty years later, I am still in Joburg and still paying my water bills. But the water supply is a long way from the gushing taps of the old days. For months now in the section of Kensington where I live, the water has been switched off just after 6pm and comes back on sometime after 7am the next morning.

It was not so long ago that we were accepting the reality that load-shedding was going to be the new normal. The power supply could not be relied on and we would have to find ways to keep all the devices essential to our lives going during the regular power outages.

As with most things in life, there is a hierarchy to this, which is determined by wealth. There are some who can afford to go full solar in their houses and not have to think about Eskom at all. Others can ignore the anger of their neighbours and buy generators. 

The less fortunate buy candles and maybe some of those rechargeable lights — and are grateful that they have a gas stove to do the cooking.

And then there are “inverters”. The market was rapidly flooded with them — in all shapes and sizes. The one constant was that these devices were shockingly expensive. The other constant is that what they can do is definitely not related to their size.

There are some, as big and heavy as a wall safe, which look as though they should be able to power up a whole house but they are surprisingly delicate and picky about what devices they allow to stay on.

I managed to get to the most basic level — having a little box that keeps the wi-fi going when the power goes off. I would still be at that level if it wasn’t for the generosity of the rich brother-in-law.

Not so long ago, he found himself with an excess of inverters and decided to hand one over to the less wealthy brother-in-law. The less wealthy brother-in-law already had an inverter that keeps the devices in his office going and decided that the second inverter could be used to plug his fridge into. This was a terrible mistake. 

The mighty beast of an inverter suffered a grievous injury. Fortunately, the less-wealthy brother-in-law persuaded the manufacturer to fix the beast and decided to hand it over to the poor brother-in-law. 

And so it came to pass that two very strong men in a bakkie arrived to carry the beast up the steps into my house. Now my Apple Mac never goes off and I have no excuse not to work. And there is no chance that the torture of watching Arsenal play out a goalless draw with Manchester City on Sunday afternoon will be interrupted by a power outage. 

Just as the constant whinging about load-shedding has almost disappeared, doused by despair, comes water-shedding. And, once again, the wealth factor determines what solutions we can make use of.

The various options on offer are almost as complicated and difficult to understand as the solutions for power outages. Even after consulting an expert, my stunted ability to understand technical matters leaves me drowning in confusion about what he calls the two main issues: water quality and water supply.

What is clear is that, for those with no money worries, the first prize is sinking a borehole and installing all the tanks, pumps, pipes and filters needed to make your house completely independent of the erratic municipal water supply. 

Below this pricey option, there are many other what are termed “water storage solutions”. Whatever option you choose, keep in mind the expert’s warning that it is a bad idea to mix municipal water with rainwater.

As can be expected, I have not even reached the most basic level of “water storage solutions”. There is not even one of those shapely tanks to collect the water from the gutter downpipes.

This is where bad gutter maintenance proves to be extremely useful. With the help of an old metal bath and the large rubbish bin from the kitchen, the water that pours down from the leaky gutters during a storm can be collected. This has to be transferred to the large collection of five-litre plastic bottles that have made it hard to even enter the spare bedroom.

A constant supply of these bottles is vital because the most pressing problem of water shut-offs is flushing, otherwise known as “empty-cistern syndrome”. For obvious reasons, the first flush of the morning is the most important and it is shocking how much water it takes to achieve a good one.

With prices rising in tandem with mounting municipal water problems, it is not financially viable to use bottled water bought at the supermarket. This has to be reserved for drinking and, at a push, face washing and tooth brushing. And, in a really desperate situation, filling up a pot to cook the pasta for supper.

This means finding time when the water is actually switched on to fill up as many of those bottles as possible with the cloudy water that reluctantly comes out of the taps. Logistics and timing are now part of the daily routine and managing the precious stash of water can become a contentious issue.

The spinach and bok choy plants in the two large pots on the balcony have to look pathetically limp before they get any water, and the dogs’ water consumption might have to be rationed soon. 

Besides the terrible noise of air choking through waterless pipes, another nasty side effect of empty-cistern syndrome is the broken lid. To fill the cistern from a bottle, the lid has to be removed, placed on a flat surface in the bathroom, the unwieldy bottle picked up and emptied into the cistern and then the lid retrieved and placed back into position. 

In the morning rush it is quite conceivable that, during this tedious process, the lid might be knocked over and break into several pieces. And don’t think that you can just buy the lid, or even the cistern with a lid. The whole system, from top to bottom, you could say, must be purchased. And this can cost well over R2 000.

It is in trying times like these that it is good to take refuge in music. And what could be more apt than Fela Kuti’s Water No Get Enemy?