by Pippa de Bruyn, The Telegraph, February 26, 2018
"'That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it?’ one diner said when asked if he wouldn’t mind keeping his cutlery for the next course. But everyone else has been amazing.”
Luke Dale Roberts, South Africa’s most celebrated chef, is talking about The Drought Kitchen (thetestkitchen.co.za), the pop-up restaurant launching in April. Luke, who also owns Pot Luck Club and Shortmarket Club, is reeling off recently introduced water-saving initiatives: harvesting grey water from air-conditioning units, boiling ice-bucket water to mop floors, disconnecting scullery hoses, installing new tap diffusers, using disposable napkins, discarding table cloths.
But the real innovation – which eliminates the need to wash 5,000 plates a week – is serving two of his tasting menu courses on disposable cards that fit into an empty picture frame; in The Drought Kitchen the entire six-course menu will be served this way. It’s not only a water-economical concept but an accurate visual play – rather like Grant Achatz, who famously uses the entire table as his canvas, Luke is a master in creating edible art.
When Day Zero – denoting the date the city’s taps could be switched off – changed from being a vague possibility to a scheduled April 15, the result was shock and outrage. Since then the city’s inhabitants, authorities and surrounding farming community have pulled together, and daily water consumption has dropped to 520,530 megalitres (from a high of 1.2 billion). While the target is 450,000, this is a commendable feat, pushing Day Zero back to May 11, then June 4. It’s currently set for July 9, when the winter rainfall should be well underway.
Does this mean the water crisis is over?
No. After three years of below-average rainfall, there is no guarantee that the 2018 winter rains will fill the Western Cape’s Big Six dams, the levels of which are currently at 24 per cent. Even if they do, the city will retain water restrictions. Given that there are 120 water-stressed cities in the world, drastically reducing reliance on tap water is the new normal.
Last month, Tolene van der Merwe, head of UK and Ireland for South African Tourism, said global warming is a “real threat that we are all responsible for taking seriously and being part of the solution”, adding: “This is the new normal in terms of responsible tourism and travel.”
Should tourists steer clear of Cape Town to let the city recover?
Quite the opposite. International tourists account for just one per cent of water usage in Cape Town; in fact, during the peak tourism month of December (when locals leave for their holidays) the city’s water consumption dropped significantly.
More importantly, tourism directly creates 320,000 jobs and brings around R40 billion (£2.4bn) in investment each year. The city needs visitor support now more than ever.
As Luke Dale Roberts, who has redeployed the six staff members employed for laundry duties into his kitchen, says: “Everything we do to conserve water impacts on jobs. Having worked hard to perfect the current tasting menu it’s nerve wracking to have to adapt dishes to use less water, but it’s important to get the message out: we will remain open for business by doing things differently.”
Are some hotels more responsible than others?
Most Cape Town hotels have taken extensive measures to reduce their water consumption - such as removing bath plugs and encouraging guests to take quick showers instead - but if you are worried about Day Zero, it’s worth noting that the V&A Waterfront’s new desalination plant, near which there are several hotels, will be the first on-stream.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the city centre is designated a "continuous water supply" area, that is, taps will not be switched off here even in the increasingly unlikely event that we reach Day Zero.
The city’s tourist board, however, recommends that all guests stay in accommodation with water-saving and contingency plans in place. It has published a list to help visitors identify such hotels.
Note also that only the city and its peninsula are affected. At popular destinations like Hermanus, a mere 90 minutes from the airport, there are no water restrictions. Visitors are however asked to be mindful that water is a precious resource throughout their stay in South Africa.
Further east, towards and along the Garden Route to locations such as Mossel Bay and Wilderness, water restrictions are yet more lenient.
What can you do to help?
Don’t bath. Restrict your shower to 90 seconds. Use towels more than once. Pack in extra clothes so that you can take your laundry home with you. Flush the toilet only when necessary. Drink bottled water from the bottle. And yes, offer to keep your cutlery between courses.
The Western Cape government has urged residents to “get creative” with new ways to save water.
In January officials said the drought led to cancellations from tourists. “There's no doubt that the knock-on effect of the water conservation crossroads we find ourselves in has had an impact on tourism,” Enver Duminy, chief executive officer at Cape Town Tourism, told Reuters. “Our water security is vital for almost everything we do, which is why it's important that we all work together to ease demand on our water supply,” it said.
How did the drought happen?
“Insufficient rainfall and fast declining dam levels have led to the current unprecedented water crisis,” the city authorities said.
The water supply of Cape Town, a “water scarce region”, is fed by six dams in and around the city, in the Western cape, all of which are drastically low. The historic dry spell has been exacerbated by a booming population.
In 2014, the levels were at 87.9 per cent full. After three years of consecutive falls, they are today at 24.1 per cent, but the bottom 10 per cent of the dam is deemed unusable.
The drought is a "catastrophe,” said Neil Armitage, head of the University of Cape Town’s urban water management department.
Though the city is scrambling to get more water in its system using groundwater and desalination plants, many frustrated residents accuse the city of mismanaging their water supply.
David W Oliver, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Global Change Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, wrote in an article for the Conversation, that the water crisis had political routes, too.
“Had systems in national government been running smoothly, Cape Town’s water crisis could have been mitigated,” he said. “Appropriate water allocations would have made more water available to Cape Town. And with timely responses to disaster declarations, water augmentation infrastructure could have been up and running already.
“Cape Town shows some of the best water saving levels in the world. But its supply dams are being hit by national government’s bungled water allocations to agriculture."