Sustainable water: Using simple conservation policies

This post was originally published on the Tanda Tula blog

Throughout South Africa, water awareness has become a huge topic of interest, with Cape Town only weeks away from #dayzero. We thought it may be useful to add comment to the issue of water scarcity, considering all of the media attention that is trying to make sense of the challenges facing Cape Town. But why would our views be of any interest or value? Well, as a commercial lodge operating out of an inherently ‘brittle’ environment, where annual rainfall only averages between 400 mm and 600 mm (between 16 and 24 inches) in a normal year, we are used to managing our water usage every single day, even when we are not in a drought crisis.

Bizarrely, our worst crisis on the availability of water came after the 2012 floods, when there was more than enough water passing through the Timbavati, but none of it fit for consumption. This brought into stark focus the fact that being without water is definitely a worse affliction than being without other modern-day comforts like connectivity and electricity… But that is a story for another time.

So let’s look at the Cape Town crisis and be clear on a few facts first. What exactly does #dayzero mean? This is the day when, yes, water from municipal supply to residential areas will be systematically turned off. But, this does not mean no water at all. It means that the city will manage allocation of water to 25 litres per person per day from allocated water supply points. However, water supply to certain essential services, like hospitals, and to commercial areas will still be maintained. When #dayzero arrives, Cape Town will become the first modern day city to have instituted such provisions. Even though daily life will be heavily impacted by the restrictions, people will be able to continue living and operating as long as they work together and think broader than their individual circumstances.

With many people wanting to apportion blame for the current situation, the reality is that a combination of factors is responsible for the dire situation that is now being faced in Cape Town. A prolonged drought is the obvious foundation cause of any water crisis. However, population growth in urban areas has also contributed, and the drought has no doubt been part of global climate change patterns. This is not to say that dithering and mismanagement on the part of the authorities has not played its part too, and there are lessons to be learnt by all of us from the situation that Cape Town finds itself in. One of those lessons is to take some of the responsibility yourself, and to find ways in which each individual can help by not being part of the problem.

Like any supply and demand system, a water crisis has two sides to it – one side is lack of supply, driven by the factors mentioned above, and the other side is over-usage and wastefulness. Usage and waste is where each of us as individuals, communities and businesses can play a vital part. Being mindful of each type of water usage, and reducing wasteful usage can go a long way to preventing a crisis.

Water usage in Tanda Tula

What does a business like Tanda Tula do to manage its water usage in a dry and remote environment? Here are some examples of things we do every day no matter what the season or the water situation:

  1. Firstly, our water is supplied by two independent boreholes which draw their water from the underground aquifer in our area. Maintaining borehole water supplies makes one critically aware of how much water you are using, as you are constantly reminded that your draw must not cause a depletion of the underground water levels, and must also not cause a deterioration of the water quality in the aquifer.
  2. We manage the impact that we have on the groundwater by annually checking the underground water levels and draw down level, as well as monitoring the health of the aquifers through water quality testing. At the same time we keep a close eye on the strength of the water being pumped from the ground.
  3. If we notice a drop in power of supply, or if we see an annual water level reduction, if our draw down tests show too great a water level change, or if we begin finding higher water hardness in our water quality tests, we immediately put in place precautions to reduce our demand long before we are faced with a crisis.
  4. From a demand side, all our showers in the tents, as well as in all staff housing, have been fitted with low flow shower heads to help reduce water consumption. We encourage our guests to use the outside showers rather than the baths – they’re also much more fun!
  5. If one has to bath due to cold weather, we encourage sharing the bath – also much more fun!
  6. The water that runs out from the basins, showers and baths in all the tents is directed into french drains, which soak away directly back into the ground. With good percolation qualities of the soils in our area, the water is naturally filtered and goes directly back into the underground water system, losing nothing to the atmosphere.
  7. Our kitchen team contributes in various ways. Firstly, the staff make sure that all fruit and vegetables are washed in tubs of water, rather than under running taps – a simple procedure which saves hundreds of litres of water every week. The best part though, is that this water is then used to water the staff vegetable garden, meaning one less element of water demand is taken care of through re-use.
  8. The scullery has moved away from hand wash basins to a large industrial dishwasher which uses conservatively one sixth of the water that was used when washing by hand.
  9. Lastly, the chefs steam all the vegetables rather than boiling them, which is a far more efficient cooking method when trying to preserve water.
  10. Downstream waste water management is a big water saving provision, especially in a commercial operation like ours. To achieve this, we invested in a water processing plant, which manages all the water coming from our central facilities like laundry, scullery, kitchen and common areas. This means that all the used water is cleaned, processed and filtered, so that it can be pumped back into our camp dam where the birds and animals can benefit and an entire aquatic system has been created. Again, the best part of this is that maintaining our camp dam water levels is no longer an element of high water demand as we are simply re-using the water from upstream utilities.

These are some fairly simple systems that we have developed and used over the years to minimize our impact on water supply, and hopefully some of these can be applied if you are looking for ways to save water. In our case, our remoteness helps us to be mindful. This quote came out of a discussion we were having today – “It is because of the wilderness environment in which Tanda Tula exists that we are extremely aware of both energy consumption and water usage. Every kilowatt of power and every drop of water that is consumed is obvious to us, through the pure effort that it takes for these resources just to get to us.”

In some follow up posts, we will look at what systems are in place in the Kruger Lowveld area to manage water supply and to ensure the continued provision of water during a prolonged drought. We will also look at some of the regional NGO’s and government initiatives that focus on water in our area. For now, we hope that sharing some of what we are doing on a very local level can stimulate an awareness of the importance of reducing water demand. In the words of Thomas Fuller - “We never know the worth of water, until the well is dry”