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Sustainability and Studying Abroad: Cape Town’s Water Crisis

by AIFS Study Abroad

New Years’ resolutions for 2018 had a particular bent toward sustainability, from “Veganuary” to breaking up with plastic. Re-evaluating our relationships with nature is very trendy right now, and for good reason!

Sustainability studies in South Africa

Our students on the University of Mary Washington Sustainability Issues Program this January in Cape Town were living their studies!  At orientation, New Year’s resolutions were shared amongst the group.  Amid the more common, albeit important intentions- to push their boundaries, and step out of their comfort zones (they already made it to South Africa!) the unanimous aspiration was to improve their eco-friendliness.

This took many forms, including using a local Bokashi composting system for all food waste, and turning off lights and other electronics when not needed.  Recycling was also a focus – not just by putting recyclable items in the correct bins, but looking at the ingenious multitude of ways the South Africans re-use materials. In Langa township they discovered art created from bottles and tins, old blenders re-purposed as a lamp, the list was endless.

Water Conservation

At the forefront of everyone’s mind, with the severe draught looming over the city, was water conservation. Their hesitation at the strict regulations at first was palpable: “A less-than 3 minute shower” – impossible! “If it’s yellow let it mellow” – gross! However, after a couple days the students were amazed how easy it actually was to save water. With a bit of awareness (and some conveniently placed signs to help remind you to turn the water off when brushing your teeth), you could halve or even quarter your consumption in a day.

Annemarie Kriel, co-owner of the Freeland Lodge accommodation commented: “It’s all about mind-set. Most of the students are embracing the challenge to see how little water they can use when they shower. They suddenly realize the value and how they have previously wasted water without ever thinking about it. Nobody is complaining as it is just a fact of life.” Indeed, challenges like this, in study abroad, as in life, often present the most impressive learning opportunities.

The situation in Cape Town made it into the world news. Understandably, both alumni and future students and faculty were concerned. Thankfully, “Day Zero” has now been postponed to August 27, and, if the rainfall and conservation efforts continue as they have, it might be avoided altogether.

Managing expectations

While Capetonians certainly can’t afford wasteful visitors, they are very reliant on their tourism.  There is every intention of keeping the city running business as usual for their guests! Bottled water will be plentiful and cheap, and even subsidized in some cases. The main concern is to manage the expectations of visitors.  Those who can “go with the flow” (or lack thereof!), are still destined to have an amazing, life-changing experience.

Reflecting on the experience 

Christiana, a UMW student, shared her thoughts; “I think South Africa is a destination that some students will be intimidated by but if you give it a chance you will not regret it. [South Africa] offers a unique experience you won’t get anywhere else. Just dive in and say yes to everything!”

Except wasting water of course- that’s a big no!

AIFS hosted the University of Mary Washington  13-night “Sustainability Issues in South Africa”  program in Cape Town in January 2018.  Dr Melanie Szulczewski led 16 students on the program. Locations visited included Boulders Beach penguin colony, Robben Island, Table Mountain, Lynedoch Eco Village, Cape Point Nature Reserve, and Langa township. To conclude the program they took a three-day trip to the Kruger National Park region.

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