How the Threat of a Water Shortage Has Changed the Cape Town Production Business

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Cape Town

"Day Zero has been canceled for 2018, but water-wise living is here to stay," says David Wicht, CEO and executive producer of production firm Film Afrika.

The phrase "rain check" has taken on a new meaning in Cape Town, South Africa’s second-largest city with a population of around 3.8 million.

People in the city were delighted about recent rainfall amid a severe water shortage that has hit the city amid a multi-year drought and unchecked water consumption that have drained water reservoirs. The local government has said that when its water reserves hit 13 percent of dam capacity, the city will have reached "Day Zero," and the government will turn off running water.

After a previous prediction that this doomsday could come as early as April, the city recently pushed it back to July and then further amid efforts to save water, finally saying earlier this month that Day Zero should be averted this year thanks to expected rain during the April to October winter season. 

Critics on social media were quick to argue that it was too early in the year to make such promises, but supporters of city initiatives argued that the threat of Day Zero led to higher water prices, as well as important changes in water usage and rules for it. Among the guidelines have been such things as calls for residents, and even tourists, to keep showers to 90 seconds and limit the daily use of water to 50 liters (13.2 gallons) or less per person.

The Democratic Alliance, which governs the city of Cape Town and the Western Cape province that it is part of, says that water consumption has fallen by 60 percent to 510 liters-520 million liters (134.7 million-137.4 million gallons) per day from nearly 1.2 billion in early 2015.

For the film sector in Cape Town, like for other sectors, the threat of the water shortage has led to changes in the way water is used and business conducted.

"Day Zero has been canceled for 2018, but water-wise living is here to stay," David Wicht, CEO and executive producer of production firm Film Afrika tells THR. "And the film industry continues to find ways of reducing its carbon footprint, on every level, including water." 

Film Afrika (Black SailsRoots), which has offices in Cape Town and L.A., recently put together a Frequently Asked Questions summary on the water issue. "No disruptions are expected for the film industry," it said. "The city has decided not to curtail water to strategic industries, such as the film industry, as well as inner city businesses and hotels. Equally, it is important to remember that other film regions across the country have no water shortages, including Johannesburg, Durban and popular film locations just outside Cape Town."

"Cape Town and the Western Cape continues to be open for business," said Monica Rorvik, the head of the film and media promotion unit and film commissioner at Wesgro, the official tourism, investment and trade promotion agency of the Cape, said in a recent statement before it became apparent that Day Zero may not happen this year. 

Wesgro's film and media promotion team and others have been holding workshops and shared educational material about best practices for water usage. "We expect that production companies would be reviewing their plans to work around the water crisis," Rorvik also told THR

Others in the industry also say they are focused on going about their business. "Whilst the water situation is a concern in Cape Town, the industry hasn’t been affected adversely," South African star producer Anant Singh (Long Walk to Freedom), who is also chairman of Cape Town Film Studios, told THR before the latest city update on Day Zero. "We are not aware of any shoots being moved to other centers."

Among recent productions in South Africa are Amazon and ITV drama series The Widow, starring Kate Beckinsale, Cinemax's Warrior, a 19th century crime drama inspired by an idea from Bruce Lee, and BBC and Amazon's adaptation of the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman novel Good Omens with Michael Sheen and David Tennant. 

"New TV series and films are starting up every month," the recent FAQs about the water shortage from Film Afrika highlighted. "Cape Town continues to flourish with water-wise living creating a new normal, aided by proactive water-wise campaigns for all visitors and residents to eliminate unnecessary waste. Though tap water continues to be safe to drink, bottled water is readily available from all retailers. Hotels, guesthouses and restaurants in the city continue to operate under the new water-wise normal. For example, they serve less pasta as it requires too much water. The only real discernible change in the city is that ingenious water-saving ideas now dominate dinner table conversations."

The way certain business gets done has also evolved. Some productions are understood to have been shipping in water from outside the city. "For some shoots where lots of potable water is used, such as a rain scene, companies are bringing in water from non-water scarce regions within the Western Cape," said Rorvik. "Some companies have shared that they are cutting to a minimum rain scenes" amid the water shortage.

Stephen Law, executive director of independent, not-for profit organization Environmental Monitoring Group, says about bringing in water from the outside: "If you are going to ship in your own water, be mindful of the impact – plastic bottles clogging up the landfill, carbon footprint of transport etc."

Rorvik's team has shared a whole list of recommendations for the film and media industries to save water. Recycled non-potable water or grey water, the relatively clean waste water from baths, sinks and the like, are playing a key role here for such things as washing cars, cleaning mobile toilets and doing special effects. 

The recommendations also include "no water to be used on set for washing hands before meals, with waterless hand sanitizer units being used instead," the use of small fridges instead of ice to cool drinks, the use of recycable cups instead of ceramic coffee cups, the use of plastic table covers instead of table cloths, the use of paper plates instead of ceramic plates, the use of food that does not require lots of water to cook, the collection of rinse water from vegetables and fruit preparation and the use of mobile instead of regular toilets.

Western Cape minister of economic opportunities Alan Winde recently lauded the industry efforts to reduce water consumption, saying: "We welcome the forward-thinking efforts of the film industry to reduce their water footprint and to save water. It is these types of innovative steps that are set to catapult our economy into a stronger and more resilient future."

Cape Town industry insiders traveling to other South African cities these days, such as Johannesburg, say they are experiencing some culture shock given there are no limits on baths, flushing toilets, and bars have mist-machines, while coffee shop waiters bring free water with the coffee. 

What if Day Zero does come? People will have to start lining up for rations of 25 liters of water each. "In the event of Day Zero, the city has conducted trials of its water collection sites and has trained teams to set up and roll out these water collection sites," according to Wesgro. "Police officials will be on hand to monitor and maintain security throughout the city in the event of Day Zero with the assistance of additional support from the South African National Defense Force if necessary."

Overall, Rorvik says Cape Town and the industry must see the water crisis as an opportunity. "The water shortage [was] temporary transition to the new normal – water is a globally scare commodity, and major cities will be transitioning to mixed sources of water," she said. "The opportunity for Cape Town to lead this global transition has presented itself in the form of a one-in-one thousand years level drought."

But Wesgro emphasizes that saving water and using it wisely will have to be an ongoing focus in the city and region. It said in guidance after the city predicted Day Zero would be avoided this year: "All residents, visitors and businesses must, however, continue to save water to ensure that these historically low consumption levels are maintained."