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This Cautious Fortnight

Developing an Interest

        Showering is a time for self-reflection. At least, it had been until our SA Airlink plane touched down in an unrecognizably arid coastal city I had once called “Cape Town.” As a South African film student in the United States, I discovered in January 2018 that what most people won’t be able to do is experience truly how it feels to dip one’s feet in a familiar culture, only to feel air where the water should be. I was the youngest member of a crew of astute American documentarians who were rearing to get this story covered. And yet, for the purpose of this blog, my story will start in Mpumalanga.

        The Great Thirst,” he started, as we sat outside the thatched hut, the sky above Kruger National Park mellow from the setting sun’s glow. “Thirsty Land,” he went on, blowing cigarette smoke contemplatively. “Or, my personal favorite, Cape of Evaporating Hope.” The “he” in question is executive producer Liam O’Brien beside his decades-long best friend, Danie Nortje. It was these men who had told me hours before that I, for the purposes of making this a truly memorable blog, was to become the assistant director of the film. The excitement was contagious; this I know because I caught it immediately. Cape of Evaporating Hope it would be.

Taking the Leap

        And then, in a much more real sense, we arrived in Cape Town. Knowing the responsibility lying not only on my shoulders, but the shoulders of us as a group, I drafted the prologue to my blog on the flight down. I think there is no reflection I could write now that truly matches my thought process as much as the prologue, so I will show it to you:

        “I sit on a flight between Mpumalanga and the Western Cape not knowing what to expect. Of course, I know the city and most things about it, but this matter is one of greater specificity, one unknown to myself and unprecedented to Africa’s southernmost nation. I worry if I will be able to shower tonight. When I speak of the water crisis, the mere uttering of the combination of words seems to ignite some fury from locals concerning who to blame, how they are forced to act, how their future is in jeopardy… and yet, no one else has a clue. That’s where we come in: ‘we’ referring to the congregation of eager students at Quinnipiac University ardent to document the drought and distribute the word of its urgency. Under the guise of Paul Morkel, our director, and Dave Gale, our ‘fixer’ (both of whom I am yet to meet), I am going to be coordinating the mayhem that will consume the next 2 weeks of my existence. Can we do it? I sure hope so. Although it will be a tight squeeze, it’s my job to ensure that this mayhem does not fall short of the public eye—I will be right here the whole time, showing everyone how we’re going to pull off (or, God forbid, not pull off) this feat, showing everyone that the Capetonians are burrowing through their yards and through the boundary of a new strife that the world has never seen before, but will likely see again in future—showing everyone that there are some Americans (and I include myself in this category, despite my personal ties to this land) who care enough about the water crisis to embark on that fifteen-hour journey to plant ourselves in the front lines of the hydrological war waiting to erupt when the land drips dry.”

        That’s how I felt. Dramatic? Perhaps, but it was very real. With each descending swoop of the plane, I grew more and more excited to hit the ground running. As we stepped into the airport, we were assaulted by signs informing us of the severe restrictions that the city is facing and imploring that we keep our water usage to a minimum. Now, I had been living in South Africa when the drought began, but I had never experienced it firsthand. Whereas Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate traditionally, the rest of the country experiences summer rainfall—the exact opposite of the Western Cape. So, when we experienced a drier season in KwaZulu-Natal, it was short-lived. Only in Cape Town did they continue to suffer, and I saw at that moment just how much they do. We scrambled to get footage of the signs, but what struck me the most was that the tap in the bathroom had been disabled and we were rather “encouraged” to use sanitizer to wash our hands. This, I learned, was not uncommon. I realized then that people there were leading their lives as victims of the crisis and we, as tourists, could not possibly feel in our two weeks what they have felt for years.

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The message seen on every TV screen in the hotel lobby.

Meeting the family

        We sat later at a restaurant, eighteen members strong on the V&A Waterfront, waiting for our fixer to arrive. The developed hub of luxury dangled on the edge of annihilation at the hands of its water. We never truly realize how much we are water’s subordinate until it starts to run out. I didn’t know what to expect of the crisis, but when I saw a middle-aged man come in with a salt-and-pepper goatee, I knew he was our guy. Dave Gale, administrator of the largest water shortage Facebook group we could find. He would set us up with some great interviews. Introducing myself as the assistant director, sitting next to him, making constant notes of his interactions with Liam, I felt like a real professional. And I loved it.

        As it turned out, the world is smaller than I knew. From talking to Dave, I discovered that he grew up in the same province where I grew up, and that his father went to the same high school that I attended. In that sense, I connected with Dave Gale. Because of that comfort that I discovered, the journalist in me discovered an urge to hear all that this man had to say about the diminishing water. 

        As an administrator of Water Shedding Western Cape, the largest Facebook group in the country focused on the crisis with nearly 161,000 members to date, Gale has water on his mind at any given moment. Started in 2016 following the unexpected d(r)ying out of rivers in the Karoo, the group aims to “provide an online space for members to share and discuss water-related information that is relevant to the drought in the Western Cape.” However, as collaborative and unthreatening as this aim may sound, the group – with 200 to 400 posts per day – suffers from infighting, dubbed “finger-pointing,” on a daily basis. From suburban residents blaming free-flowing standpipes and informal carwashes in the townships to city folk accusing farmers of using too much of the water in the dams, these accusations typically become quite aggressive, leading to such malicious dubbing as “sell-out,” “spy,” or worse. Dave Gale, I learned, is a thick-skinned man with much authority over the public response to the crisis. “People regularly comment on how much they have learned since joining, how many tips and tricks they have learned and how excited they are to see how much they have reduced their monthly usage of potable water.” I knew that this man, and his clear scope of the entire network of issues borne by the crisis, would direct us to the right people.

        The first interviewee was to be Gerhard Breedt. After a sterling interview through which he imparted onto us his tactics for hydroponics and water conservation, he took us into his yard to witness the ingenuity of his mechanisms, the most creative of which involving the collection of natural gas into an inflatable mattress I felt a great pride in being able to say “baie dankie” as we were leaving. It was a complete success. Our next man that I met was Anton Bothma. This interview was perhaps wilder than that of the previous day, simply because our entire group got splattered with mud spurting from an aquifer in a man’s driveway. That’s right, they were drilling into a residential driveway. Such a strange sight made for some extraordinary filming opportunities. It was this veteran who taught us the trade of extracting groundwater for consumption: a trade needed now in Cape Town more than ever. What appealed most to me about this interview was that Bothma offered a positive stance on a controversial topic. It seemed that most other people we interviewed excoriated the practice for its tendency to induce saltwater intrusion, so hearing his propositions allowed us a wider scope from which to establish the viewpoint of the documentary.

        The next evening, we interviewed a local TV meteorologist, Annette Venter. She gave us some amazing insight about the source and effects of the drought, which were even more devastating than we had witnessed. I discussed with our producer, Kirby Paulson, how great it would look if we showed a clip of her presenting the weather on TV before cutting to her interview. We were going to suggest it to Liam, but he had the idea even before we did. It is now the opening scene in our documentary.

The next day brought us Tom Brown, a farmer and retired businessman, and Sam Braid, a water management expert, for their extremely informative interviews. I enjoyed Tom Brown’s interview in particular because he identified the scientific causes of the drought, which I was most curious about. He identified that, for numerous possible reasons, the weather patterns that allowed the crucial rain to fall onto the Cape were now being diverted into the ocean. Dr. Braid expressed her own concerns about water wastage on both a corporate and residential scale and how they would converge at a peak known as “day zero.” This is a common phrase used in reference to the projected diminution of the water, at which point the dams will desiccate and the frightening social impact would be revealed.

Fueled by a sudden desperation, I felt that I must be able to contribute my own value to the story of the documentary. Through close family ties and some investigation, I revealed two leads, one a success, the other a semi-failure. Bad news first. My parents have been long-time friends with a prominent member of the Democratic Alliance who lives in Cape Town, so we were all hopeful that we would be able to meet with a DA representative to interview them about the water crisis. I felt that if I could pull off that arrangement, we could elevate the documentary from “student” to “professional.” Unfortunately, the contact we were given failed to get back to me, and the best the disorganized local government could offer us was the chance to attend a press conference. In this manner, despite the delay, we got our press conference footage, and it created a tremendous hook for the documentary.

The other lead was terrific. Ray de Vries is another lifelong friend of my parents and he was more than happy to be interviewed about his company, Air Water. He showed us his machinery and gave us a dramatic account of the drought that was, quite frankly, terrifying. He predicted that the water would run out even sooner than anticipated and focused more intensely on the human risk of the crisis. He shared with us his intentions of installing extensive security fixtures to his manufacturing plant to ensure that he wouldn’t be held at gunpoint for water when “day zero” does happen. As a water activist, he was confident that his machinery, with the ability to extract usable water from the humidity in the air, could reverse, or at least restrict, the rampages of the drought.

De Vries made an intriguing commentary regarding the softness and purity of the drinking water. I noticed myself at restaurants that the quality of the bottled water we were being given was concerning, the most frightening bottle I saw having a pH of 4.5 (on a scale of 1-14 where distilled water should be close to 7). De Vries’s water contained no unwanted impurities and had a pH of 8.3, which is alkaline. Drinking a bottle of it was the most refreshed I had felt over those two weeks, and I was evading the guilt of being a tourist who was draining the dams.

Sealing the Deal

Those who have seen the documentary will be aware of its aerial shots of the near-empty dams, especially the jaw-dropping Theewaterskloof, which more resembled a river. Those shots were the result of my first helicopter experience. I took to the skies in a whole new way, and there was only one time in which I was convinced that I was about to die. I was terrified, but I loved it. I likened the experience to being a passenger in a car, but with higher stakes. Although I struggled to capture shots that were remotely as stable as the director whom I was tasked with assisting, my time spent flying over Cape Town looking at all the desolation, the empty dams, the spectacle of the beautiful coastal city and the wonder of its future, was the highlight of my trip.

20180117_103422-1Director Paul Morkel overlooks the city from the front seat of a helicopter.

As for the corollary to my blog, I don’t believe that I can express my stance on the situation more strongly than I did on the flight home. Here is my epilogue:

I’m back on the plane, only it is bigger now, and north-bound. I’m going to Johannesburg, where we shall wait to board the next flight to JFK. Since my prologue two weeks ago, much has been attempted; much has been exerted; much has been experienced; much has been achieved. And yet, still the most staggering aspect is simply how much still needs to be done. To that, there is no one-line answer, no simple panacea for the dying city. Rather than solutions, there is blame, and it is abundant. No matter whose fingers are pointed in the direction of whom, the fact still remains that the Cape of Good Hope has never needed more hope than it does right now, or than it will tomorrow. To fix the crisis is out of the hands of sixteen ambitious filmmakers, but what is within our realm is to showcase it to the rest of the world with the hope that out of the crisis we can inspire a multinational solidarity that can keep water in the dams. That’s why I created this blog and (assistant-) directed our documentary, which will be available to the public as soon as we can possibly compile it. Although the film portrays the ingenuity and willpower of a desperate population, the fact is that the levels are still dropping. We’re in the Rainbow Nation, but we plead for the rain. Still, it falls out of our grasp and into the frigid ocean to the south. Never before have we needed to preserve our stockpile with such vigilance. We’re hoping that, from what we’ve learned from the best over this cautious fortnight, we can show everyone just how to do such a thing.

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Corollary poem & inspiration:

Reign

How I plea for precious waters

To come and mend these thirsty lands:

Cracked like parched lips of our daughters,

Firm as the grips on our sons’ hands.

I beg that you make the rains come

And take the place on dried-out cheeks

Of diamond tears; we miss the drum

That patters Earth when Heaven speaks

Its command of unrelenting rain.

 

Please! Let the rampant downpour flow

And usher glory to the land.

To break the dry order, shatter

Our deprivation. Let the downpour

Fall and fill the streams that we

Once called our dams, glaze

The buckets long overturned,

Slake our crackling hearts

With syncopations of divine rain.

 

I want the rain to come

Dissolve its life into the soil.

I want the water

To sweep away the torment

In this,

Our Cape of Evaporating Hope.

 

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