Water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink

“Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink
That is of course until this lovely ship does sink.”  (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner)

Written in 1834, Coleridge’s words vividly sums up the Cape’s water crisis today. Although surrounded by two oceans, the Western Cape faces the worst drought in 30 years, forcing city authorities to implement stringent Level 3b water restrictions coupled with hash penalties.

The Shamed

The Cape Town is now a city of shame, since city authorities have elected to openly name and shame the top 100 water wasters. But this was an unwarranted exercise in vanity and cheap grandstanding.

The irony is that the real shame lies in the city administration’s feckless and ineffective handling of the current water crisis that is gripping the Western Cape. It should stop blaming the crisis on bad water consumption by city residents. Water consumption patterns are seasonal according the dry hot summer season.

City officials bemoan the fact that dam levels are dropping at alarming rates. But whose job is it to manage dam levels? It’s a shame that the city’s main efforts are focused on tighter water restrictions – to name and shame residents, i.e. to fix blame – as its strategy to manage the crisis.


The City’s Epic Fail

This water crisis is compounded by the city’s unimpressive leadership and the failure to address the key challenges competently and decisively. Both the Mayor and Western Cape Premier share an acute penchant for flaunting the DA-led metro’s many successes. But this current water crisis must be considered an epic fail of the City of Cape Town.

In response to criticism of poor planning, city councillor Xanthea Limberg, the Cape Town mayoral committee member for water stated, “We cannot set aside funds for a drought that might or might not happen. Infrastructure investment is based on long-term projections of demand.” But the illogic of Limberg’s argument is glaringly spurious and absurd.

The rapid expansion in the Cape Metro burgeoning population is a matter of public record. We have known for over 30 years that the high rate of population growth in the Cape Town Metro is exerting enormous strain on city resources and infrastructure, including the provision fresh water. The City of Cape Town developed ambitious plans for affordable social housing, expanding the transport and roads network system, improving sewerage plants to meet growing demand.

There are, however, no definite medium-term plans to increase the city’s dam capacity. According to UCT environmental scientist Kevin Winter, the city council had an action plan that could be of huge benefit but implementation of some if its aspects had been delayed, such as raising dam walls.


Government intervention

National government has finally stepped in the fray. Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said on Thursday, 1 March, that water restrictions in the Western Cape will remain in place until dams have reached 85% of their capacity.

Cabinet was also looking at ways to help the province should the current water supply run out, Radebe told a post-Cabinet briefing.

“Attempts need to be instituted to provide greater comfort in the form of additional alternate water supply sources that must be on standby should inadequate water be received for this season,” he said. Thank you, sir.

To curb excessive water use, the Department of Water and Sanitation had informed the agricultural sector of 10% additional water restrictions.


What should be done now

The time has come for tough and decisive action. Radical but crucial measures are required and this might upset many people. Here are a few suggestions on what should be done now.

  • Stricter Moratorium: blanket ban on carwash and watering of gardens
  • Emergency Water shedding: Night time water shedding or shutdown to residential households from 12am to 5am, Mondays to Fridays and 1am to 4am Saturdays & Sundays until end of March 2017. Households should be advised to collect / storage containers beforehand for the water shedding period. Normal water supply to hospitals, care facilities to continue as normal.
  • Encourage increased use of natural spring water well points located across the Western Cape.
  • Alternative supply sources: construction of at least two temporary pipeline relays, to the closest supply sources either inland or along the east coast. But work on this project should start urgently.


Desalination and Water Research

Desalination of ocean seems like a no-brainer but in her State of the Province speech, Premier Helen Zille said, “This sounds like an obvious solution, but the real challenge is cost.” There are alternative options which can be explored. The City of Cape Town seems set on tackling this crisis alone.

The water crisis is impacting our lives every day; it is not a political issue. But if not managed properly it could escalate into a epic disaster.

There’s a wealth of expertise which the city can tap into at three local world-class universities, namely University of Cape Town (UCT), University of the Werstern Cape (UWC) and Stellenbosch University. UWC’s Earth Sciences Faculty has completed extensive ground-breaking research in this field.