Save water: Stop eating meat and get used to drinking treated toilet water

Stop eating meat and get used to drinking your own urine.

These were some of the water-saving solutions put forward by experts and members of the general public during the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Living Planet Conference in Johannesburg on Wednesday themed "Water: What Next?"

While the discussion varied from light-hearted to angry, the central message from experts was: As a world, we are in trouble because the days of abundant water are gone, forever.

Gisela Kaiser, City of Cape Town's executive director for water and waste and one of the conference panelists, said that drought-stricken Cape Town had made it through the summer was a relief – but the City's water supplies were still in a fragile state, as were supplies in many other cities globally.

"As a world, we are in trouble. Before the economic crisis there was environmental consciousness, but subsequently, we are like boiling frogs, there is always something more urgent to deal with," Kaiser said.

With climate change the future was uncertain. She said it was as if nature, through the local droughts and heatwaves in Europe, was telling us to change our behaviour.

Disappointing July rains

She said the three years of drought in Cape Town had made the City realise it could no longer rely only on rain-fed dams, and it was taking steps to make itself "water resilient". This included using desalination plants, groundwater and re-using treated sewage effluent.

"The heatwaves in Europe are so dire. Perhaps as society we have left it too late, but we have to start now. The public looks to the state to do everything, but it can't," Kaiser said.

The City would have liked to relax the water restrictions – and also bring down the water tariffs – now that Cape Town's combined dam level had risen to 56%. There was pressure from the public to do so.

READ: Cape Town's stringent water restrictions to remain in place... at least for now

However, although May and June had brought good rains, July had not so far, and with climate change, one could not anticipate what would happen for the rest of winter.

"So we agree with national government that we should wait until the end of August before we can reduce restrictions."

In response to a question from the floor, Kaiser said she had given up eating meat 10 years ago because of the vast amount of water used by the livestock industry.

40 litres flushed away per day, per household

WWF estimates that it takes 1 209 litres of water to produce just one hamburger patty.

Panelist Neil Mcloed, former head of eThekwini's water and sanitation, said coastal cities had the option of desalination to increase water supplies, but re-using treated sewage effluent was the only major option of increasing water supplies for inland cities such as Johannesburg.

However, there was political opposition to the idea of drinking treated sewage.

"The reality is that politicians talk about the re-use of effluent as political suicide," Mcloed said.

But it was inevitable that this would have to happen. Toilets use up to 30% of a household's water. Just four flushes a day use 40 litres of water to transport about one litre of human waste.

"Sewage contains energy and a renewable source of water… We've got to accept the notion of re-use, that's where the future will go," Mcloed said.

*Former SANParks head Mavuso Msimang was awarded the WWF Living Planet award at the conference for his "significant contribution to the environmental sector in post-apartheid South Africa".