Shaakira Jassat: The water we ‘spill’

Shaakira Jassat is a South African-born designer who currently resides in the Netherlands. Her recent work, thirTea for ONE which she showed at Design Indaba provoked visitors by examining the water usage in producing 150 mL of tea.  The upside down teacup pyramid dramatically illustrates the amount of water we ‘spill’ in the production of one single cup of tea.  

In the context of a drying out Cape Town, her work asks visitors to consider their water consumption in the simplest of acts.  Having grown up in Cape Town, the water scarcity is personal and motivated this most recent piece. Within the context of our fast paced convenient consumption, Shaakira intends to use design as a tool to generate societal awareness around resource scarcity. 

Shaakira, you refer to yourself as a design researcher. You mastered merging both analytical research and design thinking. What was the starting point for engaging in particular into background research as a tool for creating?

The research aspect of my work lays in my nature. It is part of who I am. I was always interested in approaching a problem by identifying the underlying reasons. And if you look at the word “research”, it already indicates a momentum of “searching”. Being a South African designer, whose family and friends are directly affected by the ongoing water crisis, made me want to start a discourse on the water we ‘spill’. Luckily, Day Zero was postponed, which might have had political implications, but it more importantly demonstrated the collective efforts of Cape Town and its inhabitants. South Africa’s current transitional phase as well as another tragic moment, my father’s passing last year, made me realize the finite nature of life and natural resources in general. I wanted to raise awareness and focus on Africa’s potential with regards to design and innovation through research.


Can design solve Africa’s problems?

I think we should refrain from overemphasizing design’s potential. Sometimes it is tempting to get lost in the idea that design can solve it all. I think we need to approach social issues in a collaborative effort. My project in that regard predominately aims at starting a discourse about, for example, water usage. I essentially researched the virtual water footprint of our food production chains and made visible the water usage that goes beyond the immediate and recommended water use of 50 liters a day for the average person living in Cape Town today. Using ceramics, a craft that I love, together with a wooden structure, I created an installation that serves as a large tea-maker. This tea maker moves away from the convenience of kettle to cup and asks the user to make tea by pouring water into the top cup continuously until the very last cup at the bottom is filled. Through my project I hope to visualize the hidden and seeming profligacy of our resources. Yet, I believe that eventually we must find a more holistic approach to solving societal problems such as Cape Town’s water crisis. Prospectively, I am interested in researching alternatives to non-renewable resources such as water.

As a design researcher, do you see potential in the discourse around the crisis itself?

I think that Cape Town’s water crisis and the collectivity in approaching its solution bears the potential to equate some of the inequalities that are apparent in Cape Town’s society and South Africa’s history on the whole. The current mess thus can be understood as a starting point for a powerful paradigm shift, not only when it comes to social inequality but also with regards to human lifestyle choices in general. It becomes apparent when you look at the water collection points in Cape Town – the Newlands Brewery Spring Water Point for example is one that I have personally visited. People of all backgrounds, colors and demographics are gathering and queuing for fresh spring water. It seems to equate, at least momentarily, the privileges around water consumption throughout the city.  

What would be your vision for the future?

Perhaps we should, as a collective human race acknowledge that we have advanced ourselves in ways unimaginable but that we should also be ready to accept that we have equally failed. We have caused unfathomable damage to our planet, and it is fighting us right back by saying that it cannot sustain us anymore. The damage we have inflicted on each other based on political, religious and racial terms are profound. At the same breath, I am a true believer in failure. Failure kills, but after death there is always a space for rebirth. I would like to embrace the failure and progress onto rebirth through my future projects. With many Capetonians currently sitting within the depths of a severe water crisis, and who are embracing it as their ‘new normal’, gives me the fuel to ignite my future work. I believe that these ‘new normal’, life-changing progressions require new skill sets and henceforth new design thoughts and implementations. Using the research by design method, I believe I can play a pivotal role in designing around and for the present and future situation.

Water Futures is a yearlong research program by A/D/O - curated by Jane Withers - that asks the question, "can designers solve the global drinking water crisis?" Learn more about Water Futures here