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Dettol and daffodils

Updated: Jan 18

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” 

Loren Eisley, anthropologist and natural science writer. 


It is January, and winter weather has finally arrived in our city and mountains. We are starting the new year with a big freeze, and I am incredibly grateful to see snow on the mountains. Snowmelt is the water supply for my city, Metro Vancouver.

I have learned to be grateful for the drinking water in my taps. In my formative years, I lived in a small university town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, notorious for its long spells of drought. I was raised to be constantly aware of water usage; our baths were shallow and showers short. My parents installed two large galvanized steel water tanks in the back garden as an emergency water supply, most often used in the struggling garden. Our summer grass was brown and brittle. 

“I don’t understand your father,” my mother, born and raised in the Karoo, once said to me. “He loves these small fussy flowers.” My father was English and, in keeping with men raised during WWII, not prone to fragile displays of emotions. Maybe his garden reflected his yearning for the softness of the English gardens of his homeland. Delicate flowers coaxed to life under his caring, rough hands. “Grandad Penfold taught me to garden,” he once told me. ‘I inherited the garden during the war after he died.” Grandad Penfold, my great-grandfather, was a WWI Veteran, a sergeant and a tank driver, hewn from the resilience of the British working class. My father learned from him that a garden was a safe and nurturing space. 

Despite my mother’s misgivings about my father's flower choices, she would watch her daffodils bloom next to her hardy tea bush and celebrate the buds when they lifted their yellow heads to the sun. 

One day, looking out the window, she saw two young students stop to admire her daffodil display and help themselves to a bunch of her flowers. My mother has always been known for her gentle and self-effacing demeanour. However, someone stealing her daffodils raised her ire. ‘Hey,” she called out to the startled young women, “those are not your flowers. Give them back,” she demanded as the embarrassed students retreated apologetically down the road. She was triumphant when she told me the story, laughing at her bravado. And I laughed with her.

My mother and her daffodils. Circa: 1980s

In the early 2000s, Cape Town—where I lived and ran a communications business for ten years—with a population of around 4.2 million and reliant on a water supply of rain-filled dams, was suffering from droughts. There was a ban on using hosepipes, filling swimming pools, washing cars and other stringent water restrictions regulated by harsh fines.  My husband, my six-year-old son, and I would form a human chain and pass water from our bath out the bathroom window to dump on my three precious silver birches—a tree that grows prolifically in Canada—a trio of non-indigenous plants in our otherwise drought-resistant garden.

In the early mornings, before sunrise, I would sit in the warm grey dawn on the back steps of my kitchen, sipping coffee and gritting my teeth, listening to my neighbour's surreptitious sprinklers watering their garden. Swoosh, swish, swoosh, swish. “Do they think the neighbourhood won’t notice when their garden is green and ours are brown?” I would mutter to my husband. 

In 2016, five years after my husband died, my son and I visited Cape Town during the countdown to “Day Zero.” The Mother City of South Africa was on a trajectory to become the first major city in the world to run out of municipal water. 

We stayed with my parents in their tiny retirement cottage. We caught our shower water in basins and stored it next to the toilets to fill the cisterns, only flushing when necessary. We carefully carried out any excess to water my mother's daffodil bulbs under the Karee tree. “They’re going to shrivel and die,” said my mother defeatedly. The dirty dishes were piled to one side and washed once a day. Public washrooms in restaurants and hotels had turned off the water supply to hand basins, and people respectfully did not flush toilets unless absolutely necessary. The whole city smelled of Dettol. 

Understanding the severity of their situation, Cape Town residents unified to reduce water consumption. They saved 155 million litres of water daily through demand management and leak reduction between 2015 and 2018, avoiding Day Zero until the first rains fell, alleviating the crisis. 

With Earth facing human-created climate change and global warming, we can learn from the unprecedented display of unity by the citizens of Cape Town and, as citizens of the World, unify behind one common purpose: our environment. But that may be too much to wish for this new year of 2024.

Last year, I produced and directed two videos for Metro Vancouver, which provides clean drinking water to 2.8 million residents daily, and learned up close what it takes to catch our snow melt and send it through 520 kilometres of water mains to reach homes, businesses, hospitals, schools and the many structures and establishments that need water to survive and operate in our city.

It is a privilege to have filmed at the current Capilano Water Supply Infrastructure Upgrade and the Seymour-Capilano Water Filtration Plant, which has a daily capacity of 1.8 billion litres. Drinking water is an expensive luxury and one for which I remain truly grateful.

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