Saving the world one bath at a time

2011-12-03 11:53

When the government installed solar power in the Mbele family’s RDP house, their bills shrank and their ecofriendly status grew. Lucas Ledwaba went to meet the unsung pioneers of clean-green house rules.

Every morning the Mbele household’s three little children hop, splashing and laughing, into a big plastic tub for their daily meeting with water and soap.

In these times of economic hardship, sharing bathwater helps save water and electricity – and the children love it.

But it wasn’t until watching a TV news report recently that their mothers – Silungile Mbele (31), a worker at McDonald’s and the family’s sole breadwinner, and her sister Sindi (27) – realised that their bill-slashing communal bath plan was also a great way to “go green” and help reduce the effects of climate change across the globe.

“I’m learning a lot about climate change from TV,” says Sindi Mbele. She had been watching news reports about COP17, the global climate change conference currently under way in Durban. “We need to change how we do things. We need to plant trees, veggies and save water. This will also help us save money.”

The Mbele family lives in the sprawling RDP township of Kaalfontein near Midrand, Gauteng. Lying on the banks of the Kaal river, Kaalfontein is a densely populated township where homeowners have built extra rooms and shacks on their properties, either to rent out to supplement their income or to create more room for their families.

Spaza shops and taverns thrive next to nursery schools and informal street corner traders sell everything from roast chicken legs to cigarettes.

Silungile and Sindi’s brother, Sicelo (24), live in the main house while the sisters and their children – Sabelo (4), and Sanele and Lesego, both two-years-old – live in a backyard room. The rest of the property is occupied by two zinc shacks that the Mbeles rent out.

At bedtime, they unplug all electrical appliances except the fridge. Like all the households in the area, they use prepaid electricity. In winter they spend about R400 a month and R250 during the summer months.

The Mbele family may not think of themselves as planet-saving pioneers, but thanks to having had solar power installed in their RDP house, they can count themselves among South Africa’s model green citizens.

Three months ago the family home was fitted with a solar geyser.

Dark, rectangular solar panels with a round metal geyser looming above now adorn the roofs of Kaalfontein’s houses like invaders from another planet.

The geysers were installed as part of government’s solar water-heating programme, which forms part of the National Energy Response Plan.

The public enterprises department in conjunction with Eskom aims to install more than a million units in the next three years.

The plan also involves the distribution of 10 million compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) in households to reduce the pressure on the electricity grid.

“The geyser has made our lives a lot easier and it saves electricity,” says Silungile. “In the past we had to heat water in a kettle which takes up a lot of time and consumes too much electricity.”

The Mbeles have adopted other energy-saving habits which have the extra advantage of shrinking their bills while growing their green status.

Says Sindi Mbele: “When we go shopping we re-use plastic bags. We are really just trying to save everything. But now I have learnt that this is actually part of recycling.”

The family used to grow their own vegetables, but now every inch of the property is built on to generate income.

“If we had enough space I would start another vegetable garden,” says Sindi.

“It would help to have one because that would mean we wouldn’t have to take a taxi to the shop.

“That single trip means the air will be even more polluted.”

On the day City Press visited the Mbeles, the children’s bath was being filled the old-fashioned way – with four kettles of boiling water, instead of from their newly solar-heated tap: Sicelo had left his house in a hurry and forgotten to leave his sisters the key to get in.
As Silungile, who was getting ready to go to work, laboriously boiled kettle after kettle of water, the Mbele sisters were reminded of how lucky they are to have hot, running water that they can afford.

“When something like this happens you really begin to realise how much this geyser has helped us.

“It has never disappointed us. Even when it rains, we know we will still get hot water,.” says Sindi.

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