What the water crisis reveals about your character

IF YOU live in the Western Cape, the way you react to the current water crisis reveals quite a lot about your character.

Everywhere you go, it is a topic of conversation. And there’s a reason for it: it is a very serious situation when a metropole runs out of water.

For decades, access to water has just been a given to the majority of Cape Town’s inhabitants. It was something most people grew up with – you open a tap, and a stream of water gushes forth. It might have been a tap in the house, a tap in the yard, or in informal settlements a tap down the street.

But water there was. And for years, a large chunk of it was free to many of Cape Town’s people: six kilolitres, to be precise.

Why cities are where they are

Think of how human settlements developed: most of the larger and older cities of the world are built on rivers. It wasn’t for aesthetic purposes, though. The site was initially chosen because there was water that people and animals could use. But water also forms a barrier for protective purposes. London is where it is, because it was the first place where Roman soldiers in full battle gear could wade through the Thames at low tide.

Many historic settlements have been abandoned because wells or rivers dried up, or aqueducts finally stopped working after hundreds of years, and nobody knew how to fix them.

A city under siege

In modern cities the average inhabitant has lost touch with the basics, such as where the water really comes from, because we have always taken it for granted. People are reacting to the threat of Day Zero a bit like I imagine they would if an enemy were on the way to besiege a city.

Rumours fly, water is stockpiled, boreholes are dug, alarmists sound the cry, blame is apportioned, and opportunists find ways to cash in.

In short, when the waterhole shrinks, the animals look at one another differently, to quote an old African proverb.

Neighbourhood WhatsApp groups have daily posts on the subject from a variety of viewpoints. Most people I have met are concerned, discuss the measures they have taken, try and find out why this has happened, share water-saving experiences and anxiously scan the weather reports and the weekly dam levels.

But there are certain specific personal character traits coming to the fore in the way people approach the crisis. Some are good, some not so good. Here’s more about what I have observed in the people around me.

The moaner. This is the person who has never asked what they can do to save water or how they can contribute, but who merely concentrates on the personal inconvenience to them caused by the water shortage. They have a way of complaining that is slightly accusatory, as if you have the solution to the crisis in your hands, but are choosing not to share it.

The truth is that everyone is inconvenienced, but their toilet, their plants, their filthy car, their dying lawn are somehow just seen as being somewhat more important than anyone else’s. And everything is someone else’s fault.

The water waster. This is the person who has not changed their water usage habits at all, and who merrily continues taking baths, watering gardens and filling up swimming pools because they have the money to pay. The council now puts in meters to limit usage on these properties. And rightly so.

It’s not about having the money to pay for water – if it runs out, you cannot take a sip of small cash if you are thirsty. Taking more than your fair share now is just plain selfish.

The realist. This person realises there is a serious problem, does what they can to save water, encourages the family to do the same, plans ahead for a crisis, stays informed on what is happening, sticks to the usage limits, and tries to be part of the solution.

This is also the person who will, in a crisis, help those around him or her, such as the old or the infirm, rather than just thinking of themselves. They watch and wait and prepare themselves, but will not be losing sleep over a problem that is mostly out of their hands.

The alarmist. This is the doomsday prophet of modern times. He/she has a vision (and they are not scared to share this with others) of how fights will break out in water distribution queues, cholera and other waterborne diseases will halve the population, water wars will break out, the property market will collapse, schools will close, food will run out – in short, the destruction of Troy by the Greeks will look like a picnic in comparison.

This type of person goes in for fake news. This is also the person who likes to blame someone for the crisis: people in informal settlements (guys, if you have to carry your own water, how much of it are you going to waste?), the city council, politicians, rich people, poor people – well, just about anyone will do.

The waterpreneur. Whether these people are providing a necessary service or cashing in on a crisis depends on your point of view. But people selling water tanks and digging boreholes must be laughing all the way to the bank. Not so the nurseries and the pool companies.

I saw an ad for a service that will bring Newlands spring water to your door for a fixed price per month. Is this even legal? Isn’t this water not supposed to be used for commercial purposes? But as in all crises, or sieges, or disasters, if you can provide a necessary service, and provide a scarce commodity, you will always have customers.

The miser. It’s one thing really needing to cut your costs to a minimum in order to survive (or to save water because of the severe drought), and quite another to do it as a grim sort of exercise in self-deprivation. Because you will find that misery really does love company – the people who hardly feel entitled to drinking water will seldom keep quiet about it.

It becomes a sort of one-upmanship in the deprivation game. These could also be the somewhat fanatical stockpilers – pretty much like the miser counting his cash by candlelight. In this category you will also find people who are still moaning about not getting their first six kilolitres for free, despite being more than able to pay for it.

The expert. Right, if you are a climatologist, or a sanitation engineer, or a dam builder, or you work in the water department, you have a right to your moment of glory. But have you noticed how everyone has suddenly become an expert on desalination plants, dam engineering, rainfall patterns, water tanks, sewage disposal, water planning – the works?

It’s good to be informed but remember, reading one article on Google doesn’t make you an expert. In this category you will also find the hindsight specialist, who often starts sentences with “If only…”, “Or why didn’t they…”.

The conspiracy theorist. This one will tell you the dams are actually full – it’s all just a ploy by the city council to get money out of us. Or someone high is up is planning to sell stockpiled water, or the ANC government doesn’t want to spend money on a DA province.

This person can probably be forgiven, if you think of all the revelations about state capture that have surfaced in the last few months. Who knows? We should always ask questions, but there is a point where things start bordering on the ridiculous.

We could be in the countdown to Day Zero. Or a week of heavy rain could sort out the water problem. I am anxiously watching the skies. We just don’t know what will happen. Being prepared never hurts, but unnecessary panic actually does.

Rest assured that we are an inventive species. Sometimes destructive, sometimes short-sighted, but certainly inventive. That is why we are still here. And why we will still be here a year from now.

  • Susan Erasmus is a freelance writer. Views expressed are her own.

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