Having been raised in Namibia, I always fancied myself as a bit of a hard-core conservationist. I was sure I knew all about camping, minimal water use and roughing it.
So when the Cape Town water restrictions slowly notched from level 3 in November 2016 to level 5 in September 2017, I was not particularly alarmed for me or my family. After all, the worst that could happen would be like an extended camping trip.
The "if you wee, let it be" rule was fast adopted at home, shutting off toilet cisterns and living by the bucket. We embraced the new normal at home. My daughters learned to dispose of loo-paper in a swing-bin, to avoid unpleasant sewer blockages. If the Cape Town sewer system was ever to collapse closer to day zero, our family would be ready to dig that pit latrine in the garden. It all seemed under control – in the happy and safe confines of the family, right?
But herein lies a snag that so many of us Capetonians are caught up with – we have not mastered the art of taking our water saving habits into the public realm.
We live in a metropole of four million people, sharing confined spaces every day. We share space at work, at leisure and while going about our daily living. In these situations, our health, well-being and conflict-free coexistence is underpinned by a really strongly articulated – and repetitive code of conduct: cubicle ethics.
The back door of every toilet cubicle has its own version of "Please leave these facilities in a condition you would like to find them in". This social code of conduct is drilled into us everywhere. It has been burnt into the deep layers of our subconscious and it drives our behaviour when we use bathrooms in public. Not adhering to it is considered undignified and an insult to those who use the cubicle after you.
So it was in a public cubicle at work where I hit my moral dilemma. Do I mellow it and risk facing the wrath for disobeying cubicle conduct? Or do I flush six litres for my number one down a U-bend and clock up on my daily allocation of 87 litres?
To be honest, I sat longer than needed, waiting for colleagues to leave the bathroom facilities, so that I could make an unseen, unflushed escape. For me, the crisis took precedent – but I felt too ashamed to be seen doing it.
In one of our lively lunches at work, our conversation drifted towards the drought and before we knew it, we discussed our sentiments about non-flushing in public bathrooms. A clear moment of hilarious oversharing and toilet talk – but what became clear is that my dilemma was shared by others – apart from a few who could or would not even entertain the idea of a non-flush.
It is a touchy point, fair enough. Each to their own, but ultimately we are in this drought together. If we ever hit a day zero, the freedom of choice (to flush or not to flush) will no longer be ours.
My literal #WatershedMoment came a while later – again in the cubicle. After a long meeting my colleague and I chattered our way into the adjacent bathroom cubicles. Our cubicle conversation continued – until we both hit pause, as we realised that neither of us could exit this cubicle, leaving it anonymously unflushed. We were both there and could judge each other… after a moment of considered and uncomfortable silence we dared each other to not flush. We both emerged, feeling conspiratorial and relieved – in more than one way. We had given each other the permission to not flush – and somehow that had made it all easier.
So if there was any lesson to share, it is that permission cubicles in public spaces will appeal to a significant number of Capetonians – and maybe even visitors. Many of us want to do the right thing, but we need a magic word: "permission". In a drought as severe as this, my plea is for an amendment to public toilet cubicle conduct.
- Klaudia Schachtschneider works for WWF South Africa's Freshwater Programme. WWF South Africa is calling on companies across South Africa to participate in #WatershedWednesday on 29 November 2017 by implementing extreme water-saving measures. This symbolic ''watershed moment'' is to drive water awareness in offices, businesses, malls and other public places. For more on this initiative see here.