An Athenian in Cape Town

This blog was written by Marilyn Hall who is lucky enough to travel the world with friends.

Last month I traveled to Cape Town, South Africa in search of water conservation ideas……Here are some things I learned.

Cape Town is really far away. We drove an hour to the Atlanta airport, flew 9 hours to Amsterdam, had a two-hour layover, and then flew 11 hours to Cape Town. When we arrived all I wanted to do was splash some water on my face, wash my hands, and brush my teeth. Much to my disappointment, there was no running water at the sinks at the airport!

airport sink

Splashing hand sanitizer on your face is not very refreshing.

Cape Town is experiencing an epic drought.  Drought reminders were everywhere, so I decided to take photos to share with the Athens-Clarke County Water Conservation Office. Hands sticky from hand sanitizer, I proceeded to customs and immigration.  These are some of the things I saw.

airport toilet

We were encouraged to embrace the “If it’s yellow it’s mellow” philosophy at the airport.

airport hallway

Signs the size of billboards lined the walls at the airport.

on the line

Their water use is “on the line”. Clever outreach idea.

airport billboard

Save like a local? What does that mean? I was about to find out.


Four million people call Cape Town home and they are three years into the region’s worst drought on record.  The reservoirs supplying South Africa’s second most populated city are almost empty.  Residents are limited to 50 liters per day, only 13.2 gallons.  The average American family uses more than 300 gallons every day, and that is just at home!

I also saw several signs promoting investment in Cape Town.  The economic impact of a drought like this must be enormous.  Imagine seeing signs claiming that Cape Town is running out of water next to signs promoting investment there.


Due to phone battery problems (thanks, Apple), I don’t have any photos of the investment signs at the airport.  But they looked something like this.

What could the impacts be?  I asked my travel companions and they were concerned about public health, civil unrest, and social equity.  One asked what the city would do if there was a fire.  I added that there are economic impacts such as lower rates of investment and job losses.


Day zero is the date when officials believe that Cape Town will run out of water. By the end of my trip, the number of days to Day Zero had increased to 136.  The fact that I was there probably had little to do with the improvement, but you never know.

Assuming it rains during their rainy season, political leaders believe that Day Zero will not happen in 2018...  But what if it doesn’t rain?

Years ago water resources planners knew this was coming.   I spoke with a lot of people while I was there.  I asked my Uber drivers, restaurant staff, people working at the hotels, etc.  They all told the same story. It went something like, “The government knew that they were going to run out of water, and ‘they’ were going to fix it.”  Years ago, if they had implemented recommended strategies such as augmenting water supplies with recycled water, they would not be in the position they are now.

newspaper old

Although water planners knew drought would be a problem, political leaders chose not to invest in infrastructure.

I am not sure what the people in Cape Town are going to do if Day Zero arrives.  One Uber driver told me has never had reliable drinking water and he will survive Day Zero.  I admire his resilience, but I am worried for the 4 million residents of Cape Town.

It is nice to be back home in Athens where we have conscientious local leaders who are willing to take responsibility for the future.  In February 2107, Athens’ Mayor and Commission approved the three recommendations of a risk-based water assessment. First, implement a water reuse program to send recycled water to industrial users that will offset demands for potable drinking water.  Second, develop additional conservation measures to reduce per capita demands by an additional 10%. Third, investigate the feasibility of additional raw water and recycled water storage.  These solutions will ensure that Athens will have reliable water supplies in the future.

I would love to travel to Cape Town again.  Hopefully, they will have resolved their water crisis before my next visit.

How much water is left in Cape Town today? Check out their water dashboard.

To learn more about the water crisis in Cape Town check out this great website from the University of Cape Town.


Reduce, Reuse, Re-water-cycle

Today’s blog is by Laurie Loftin, program specialist in ACC Water Conservation Office

Reduce, reuse, recycle. This delightful alliteration reminds us of alternative ways to lighten the load in our landfills. But can this jingle apply anywhere else? Can we broaden the breadth of the 3 R’s to embrace our waters? Perhaps a “reduce, reuse, re-water-cycle” could become an updated slogan. Let’s take a look at how to adapt these concepts to care for a vital resource.

Reduce: The first “R” is easy to understand and accomplish. Turn off the water when brushing your teeth, find and repair leaks, or trim your meat consumption and you easily reduce your water footprint.  When we are in the habit of using less water, we are better prepared to handle the inevitable dip in our water supply. Reducing demand on reservoirs and other sources allows us to save this liquid gold for the non-rainy days of drought.

Reuse: Pollution, proximity, and drought are a few of the variables affecting our ability to easily access water. As our world population grows, our water resources remain the same. But is it possible there is another source of water we are overlooking?

There is. Sort of.  What we currently refer to as wastewater has the potential to be reused, essentially allowing us to find a “hidden” reservoir.  Reusing wastewater is not a new idea. In fact, March 22 marks World Water Day, an annual event coordinated by UN-Water. The date celebrates water and highlights a specific issue related to tackling the world’s growing water crisis. For 2017 the theme is “Why Waste Water?,” with a focus on the many applications for wastewater reuse.

According to UN-Water, “globally, over 80% of the wastewater generated by society flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused.”¹  If this water is treated and safely managed, it could offer an affordable supply of water, particularly in developing countries with limited access to water. Improved sanitation means better health, which leads to increased productivity and a positive economic impact that far outweighs the initial cost of wastewater treatment.

The idea is not a pipe dream.  Already cities across America are discovering ways to reuse water. Purple pipes allow access to treated water approved for the irrigation of golf courses and agriculture. The Waterhub at Emory University in Atlanta, GA reuses water to supply nearly 40% of the school’s non-potable needs. Breweries in CA and WA use treated wastewater to brew craft beers. Municipalities are beginning to investigate and plan for reservoirs that receive piped effluent. The many possibilities for reuse water in agriculture, energy production, and reservoir replenishment are intriguing and worth exploring.

Re-water-cycle: Reuse and recycle appear to be similar, but if we connect the terms to water, there is a clear distinction. Reuse involves imagining creative ways to reuse our wastewater.

Recycled water is the never-ending cycle of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation.  We can also think of water as being recycled when added to soft drinks, consumed in our bodies, and absorbed into our food crops.  The recycling of water is a good and necessary phenomenon.  However, water recycling is a double-edged sword.  During this revolution water can leave one community and move to another.  When water vapor blows from one state to another or transported away in a plastic soda bottle or cucumber,  the result is a water loss in one area and a water gain found in another.

A second way H2O recycles is during the “urban water cycle“.  Water is removed from a point of supply and taken to a drinking water treatment plant to be transformed to drinking water quality. The clean liquid flows through pipes to people’s homes and businesses. The water is used and flushed into sewer pipes to make its way to a water reclamation facility. The wastewater is treated and returned to the source, which flows to the next community to be pulled and turned into drinking water.  This happens again and again.

As presented, the 3 Rs are easily applicable to water.  The next question is whether or not others will agree.

When I speak of water reuse or recycling, listeners often wrinkle their noses in a display of disgust.  Understandably, the word “wastewater” tends to have negative preconceptions associated with it.  But if you are familiar with the treatment operations at water reclamation facilities, you know filtration equipment removes trash, solids, and inorganic compounds from the influent.  Microorganisms handle the removal of phosphorus, nitrates, and other undesirable elements.  Ultraviolet rays provide an additional layer of disinfection.  The remaining end product is typically cleaner than the source water it is added back to.  Any of the ickiness factor one links with the idea of wastewater reuse washes away during treatment.

If you go deeper, we can imagine the places our water may have been before it is in our drinking glass.  The water molecule you shower with may have once been inside a rabbit.  Your coffee may contain water that percolated down through someone’s septic drainfield.  Water has been recycled and reused from the dawn of time.  When it is properly treated, we have very little fear of becoming ill as a result of reusing these well-traveled molecules.

The point is, we already practice the 3 Rs in relation to water without thinking about it.  We must continue to reduce our demands on the water supply.  It is time for us to investigate innovative applications for wastewater reuse and put the ideas into action.  We need to ensure that wastewater is properly treated worldwide so only the cleanest water is available for recycling.  All of this can done.  We simply need to recognize that there is no such thing as wastewater, but rather only wasted water.


1 On average, high-income countries treat about 70% of the wastewater they generate, while that ratio drops to 38% in upper-middle-income countries and to 28% in lower-middle-income countries. In low-income countries, only 8% of industrial and municipal wastewater undergoes treatment of any kind (Sato et. al, 2013).