You turn the kitchen tap and there’s a brief splutter of brown gunk. Then nothing.

So you walk into the dustbowl you once called your garden and watch what’s happening in the street. People are queuing for water already — and you know you need to get in line soon to take your place with the rest of your neighbours, who’re already snaking along the pavements of your suburban block. The water bowser will be there at noon, delivered by the army, trying to make sure that everyone gets his or her 20l of life.

It’s the stuff of dystopian nightmares and Mad Max films. But given that the worlds of reality and dark futuristic dreams seem to be converging on the Mother City, it is perhaps not an unrealistic vision for summer at the end of 2018 there. The Western Cape’s dams teeter on the verge of being empty and its people may be finding it hard to imagine a time when baths and car washing were daily indulgences; and yet the province is a part of SA that is flanked with almost endless water — the ocean.

Desalinisation can make some of this usable, but the sea, salty as it is, might just offer another glimmer of hope to the parched province — by irrigating vegetables.

Sound outrageous? How could harsh, brackish sea water be used to grow anything?

Capetonian experiential designer Hannerie Visser has set about proving this widely held attitude dead wrong. She and her team at Studio H have initiated a speculative project to get South Africans thinking about growing and producing what we eat sans water and to develop alternative ways to cultivate food.

But let’s take a step back. What is experiential design, and what does Studio H do? To put it plainly, and as the name suggests, it designs experiences and events — especially relating to food. So, for example, the team is involved in events for big clients such as Nando’s and Woolworths, organising a food festival and producing a magazine about food. It also handles installations and projects like the ones you might see in the centre court of a shopping mall that aim to get people thinking about matters such as sustainability and the provenance of what we eat.

Because of the world’s water crisis, a lot of its work revolves around this theme.

So when Studio H was invited to take part in  the annual Dutch Design Week (DDW) last year, a water-based project seemed like the obvious choice. And since the team was working together with Dutch initiative Agri Meets Design, which pairs designers with farmers and people in the industry who work at solving agricultural problems, Studio H started by looking at a couple of futuristic farming projects in Holland.

Visser says 69% of the world’s freshwater usage is in agriculture. According to nonprofit organisation Water Education Foundation, a cup of lettuce requires 11l of water to grow. So does a potato. And a mere 122g of tomato needs a staggering 30l.

And that’s all before one considers how much water livestock need.

Saline agriculture

There are, fortunately, people looking at how to reduce these staggering numbers. Visser says: "We found out about Salt Farm Texel in the Netherlands. It has been researching this for 10 years and is entirely committed to developing saline [sea water] agriculture. The farm has grown a number of salt-tolerant crops."

Amazingly, these crops include potatoes, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, carrots, garlic and onion. Salt Farm Texel has been testing the viability of a large-scale salt-tolerant potato crop in Pakistan since 2014, so this is no fly-by-night operation.

Studio H’s DDW project invited visitors to sample this produce. "Compare a carrot grown in sea water with one normally cultivated and you can taste the difference. Strangely, the salt water version is sweeter," Visser says.

Taking the concept one step further, the Studio H team has since developed entirely water-free products from the salt-tolerant veggies and fruit. "We call it our S/Zout Pantry," says Visser. There are carrot "fruit loops", flavoured salts and even a ketchup made from salt-tolerant tomatoes and a touch of vinegar and sugar. "Zero freshwater was used in the growing of the ingredients and the making of this food," she says.

Flavoured salt from S/Zout pantry
Flavoured salt from S/Zout pantry

On January 23, 24 and 25 the Studio H team is hosting S/Zout Waterless Dinners in Cape Town. A four-course menu will include crudités and garlic dip, flame-grilled mackerel (a very sustainable fish), ostrich meat and even camel milk ice cream. "Ostriches are like camels," says Visser. "It’s not essential for them to drink water, so it’s the best water-wise meat."

The camel milk comes from Upington, and the ostrich meat is local too.

Of course it’s not all cut and, umm, dry. For now, Capetonians probably shouldn’t be popping down to Clifton Fourth Beach to gather sea water to irrigate their vegetable patches.

"We’d have to do real research into the pollution levels of our sea water to [find out whether we can] make this viable," says Visser.

But it’s a kernel of an idea. And, Visser adds, it’s one that is just the first of loads of other ways to mitigate the aqua-usurping disaster that is cooking and eating.

What does she recommend as a start in modifying meal preparation? "Washing fruit and vegetables uses a whack of water, so wipe them instead. And use disposable cutlery, crockery and serviettes so there’s no need to clean up afterwards," Visser says.

The proceeds of the S/Zout Waterless Dinners will go to Veld & Sea — a food-foraging network  (yes, it will teach you to collect food from the land
and the ocean).

For more info visit www.studio-h.co.za or book tickets for the dinner at www.quicket.co.za

sarahb@tisoblackstar.co.za