As anxious Cape Town residents try to comply with the municipality’s increasingly stringent water restrictions, which now limit them to 50l/day, previously mundane hardware items have turned into bestsellers.

Hot-ticket items include buckets for collecting grey water to flush toilets, collapsible PVC pipes to channel rainwater from gutters into swimming pools and weed sprayers that double as cheap and water-efficient DIY showers.

At dinner tables, in workplaces and on social media the staple discussion topics are innovative ideas to stave off Day Zero — when the city’s water supply dips so low the municipality turns off most taps, and rations residents to 25l/person/day at designated collection points.

The Facebook page Water Shedding Western Cape has more than 152,000 members, who trade tips on water conservation that range from technical advice on installing rainwater tanks, pumps and filters to simple ways to stop grey water from smelling and recipes for home-made waterless hand sanitisers.

The level of the six main dams that provide Cape Town’s water supply stood at 25.8% of their collective capacity on February 2. A stark warning from mayor Patricia de Lille in mid-January that Day Zero was "now likely" and could arrive as soon as April 12 sparked consumer panic. Within the space of a weekend some retailers’ shelves were swept bare of bottled water, 25l jerrycans and just about any other storage receptacle. In the ensuing frenzy, Woolworths’ online ordering system buckled under the weight of orders for bottled water, Makro set up separate cashiers for the crowds who were buying water, and security was stepped up at the Newlands Spring as residents flocked to secure free supplies.

"Customers have been buying significantly more bottled water and water containers in the region since [new] restrictions were announced, and we are sourcing increased stocks from suppliers. In the meantime, we are asking customers to limit their purchases of water to 50l so that we can serve as many customers as possible," says David North, Pick n Pay’s group executive for strategy and corporate affairs.

While consumer fear and creativity is plain to see, many businesses are innovating behind the scenes. Borehole rigs and clusters of rainwater tanks are a common sight across town as companies seek ways to reduce their reliance on municipal water.

Metropolitan, for example, says it has sufficient borehole water to run the sanitation system at its Parc du Cap complex in Bellville, which is also home to other large businesses, such as pharmaceutical manufacturer Cipla. Large shopping malls are using grey water or borehole water to flush toilets, have switched off most taps, and offer consumers waterless hand sanitisers.

The V&A Waterfront, which has cut its municipal water consumption by 53% since 2010, is also turning to sea water, using it to clean dusty car parks and run the air-conditioning in its Silo Building.

It expects to commission its own desalination plant next year.

Private hospital group Netcare is also investing in desalination, and will shortly commission a plant in its Christiaan Barnard hospital that will yield enough fresh water for all five of its Cape Town hospitals, as well as showers and drinking water for staff should the need arise. Like rivals Mediclinic and Life Healthcare, it says it cannot risk relying on official assurances that hospitals will be protected from water cuts come Day Zero (which has now been set at May 11.)

Along with the quest for new water sources goes water conservation. Netcare’s weekly water newsletter describes measures that range from hi-tech, such as installing sporicidal curtains that need little washing, to super-low tech, such as removing jelly from the staff menu.

Sometimes surprisingly simple changes have a big impact, says Byron de Carvalho, MD of catering company Shesha, which supplies the film industry. He stopped providing bottled water on set, asked everyone to bring their own bottles to fill up at large dispensers, and slashed monthly drinking water consumption by 75%.

Companies are also thinking about how to cushion their businesses from the inevitable drop in productivity if their staff have to queue for hours to collect their water rations. Many have declined to comment openly on their plans for accommodating staff needs, saying they have yet to brief their personnel. But privately they say they are making plans to truck in water or set aside a portion of their alternative water supplies if need be.

Woolworths says it has made plans to provide staff with water at work and to take home to their families if required.

"The public are nervous, but we are quite confident that we are well prepared," says Mediclinic GM for infrastructure Kobus Jonck.

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