In battle conditions it means deciding which of the wounded need urgent treatment and which will have to wait. The same applies in large-scale tragedies, such as train wrecks, terrorist bombings or fires.
If there are more casualties than the rescue team can handle, somebody has to decide who gets saved and who is probably beyond help.
It must be an awful responsibility for a field doctor to decide which patients can be treated and which, in all probability, will have to die.
On a far less traumatic scale, many Cape gardeners are having to apply a form of triage to their precious plants.
Most of us simply do not have enough “grey” water to irrigate all our plants, so we have to make choices.
Do I give that tomato bush the water I’ve scooped out of my wash basin, or do I pour it on to the beautiful rose bush that is about to bloom? Is there any point in trying to keep that geranium alive until it eventually rains?
Plants are important in cities. They soften the hard edges of life in the often cruel concrete jungle.
They provide welcome shade and filter some of the pollution out of the air. A newly established suburb look very bleak until the gardens have had time to establish themselves.
Now many of us are having to stand by, helpless, and watch the plants we have grown with such care slowly drooping and dying.
The good part of all this is that there must by now be close on a million rainwater tanks standing in suburban gardens across the city.
They are all still empty at the time I write this but it must rain eventually (so far there has never been a drought that hasn’t broken) and then those with brimming tanks of clear water will be able to smile smugly and feel as satisfied as a businessman with a billion in the bank.
Imagine the pride of being able to offer guests “a little water with your whisky? We harvest our own, you know”.
And the day will surely come when the most sought-after urban status symbol will be to own a solar powered still in the back yard.
But until that happy time, the triage continues.
A neighbour spotted Koos, the local pig farmer, wearing a new suit and pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with manure.
The neighbour stopped his car, rolled down window and shouted to Koos: “Hey, man, why are you dressed so smartly for farming?”
“You see,” said Koos, “my daughter is getting married this afternoon and I have to give her away but I have to fertilise the tomatoes first, so I thought I’d save time and put on my suit now, then when it’s time to go to church all I have to do is change my vest and underpants and I’m ready.”
* Biggs is a daily columnist for the Cape Argus
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.