A rush of panic – waterless Cape Town


DA LEADER Mmusi Maimane has appealed to the media not to sensationalise the water crisis that has taken hold of Cape Town and parts of the Western Cape in a vice-like grip.

Well and good. Perhaps he should have a quiet word too with Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, a member of the “crack” team he has assembled to handle the crisis. Perhaps he should also look at his own “yes we can” type of performance, in telling the people of the city that all of us can “defeat Day-Zero”, if we all pull together.

Turning a serious issue, which has already sparked a rush of panic-buying of water in Cape Town, into pure theatre is not the way to handle a situation which members of his own party see as a massive crisis. And speaking of which – what are we supposed to make of Zille’s take on this crisis?

In a newspaper interview last week, she said: “As things stand‚ the challenge exceeds anything a major city has had to face anywhere in the world since the Second World War or 9/11. I personally doubt whether it is possible for a city the size of Cape Town to distribute sufficient water to its residents‚ using its own resources‚ once the underground water pipe network has been shut down.”

What utter rubbish!

It’s arrogant. In many ways, it’s racist. And most of all, it is a shameless attempt by the DA (through Zille) to cover all its bases. On the one hand, if Day-Zero cannot be “defeated” it will be a case of: ‘Well look at the size of the challenge we faced.”

On the other hand, if it is “defeated”, it will be a handy item for the DA to pull out of its bag of 2019 election goodies: “In the Western Cape, the DA-run city of Cape Town faced the biggest challenge that any city has faced since the Second World War, or 9/11, and look what we did….”

To give just a few examples, since the Second World War, India was partitioned, and with the birth of Pakistan, numerous cities, in both the new country and India, faced challenges far greater than Cape Town. After the Second World War, the economies of just about every major city in Western Europe was saved by so-called “Marshall Plan”.

And what the challenges of unemployment, poverty and pass laws faced by black people in every major city of South Africa during the apartheid era? Since 9/11 in 2001, Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, went bankrupt. Baghdad, the capital of Iraq has never recovered after being occupied and bombed by American troops. And the list goes on and on.

The fact is, the DA was caught with its broeks down in the Western Cape. It has never had a plan to overcome the threat of Cape Town’s water supply running dry. Any chaos will be of its own making.

Let’s look at how seriously Zille has considered the threat. In her State of the Province addresses in 2015 and 2016, the water shortage hardly warranted a mention. In 2017, she spoke about water shortages posing a major crisis.

But her first announcement with regard to this was: “We are working on expanding the storage capacity of the Brandvlei dam, so that an additional 4 400 hectares can be irrigated, with the potential of creating upward of 8 000 new rural jobs. 

And then she said: “A study we’ve already completed indicates provincial water demands will exceed the current supply in 2019″. “Going forward there are some key interventions to address water shortages in our region that are being engaged by all levels of government. These are:

– The Berg River-Voëlvlei augmentation scheme which amounts to diverting surplus winter water into the Voëlvlei Dam, maximizing the storing capacity of winter rain;

– Fast-tracking the development of the Table Mountain Group Aquifer, the underground water table stretching from the peninsula all the way to areas including Knysna and Oudtshoorn, 

– Water re-use – In other words, wastewater treatment on a macro scale; and

– Desalination – this sounds an obvious solution, but its real challenge is cost. It could cost a minimum capital amount of R15 billion for a desalination plant for Cape Town with operational costs potentially running between R350 million and R1 billion per year.”

This is not a plan. It is a wish-list. Both the City and the Province owe the residents of Cape Town a simple answer to a simple question: what progress was made in turning this wish-list into something measurable? And how many of these measurables have been completed?

The fact that Maimane’s “crack” team has not said “job done” or even “started” on any of the items on her wish list is telling. They could have started with something relative easy – a progress report on leaking pipes in the City….

In August last year, the DA’s own Western Cape Department of Tourism, Economic Development and Agriculture estimated that a total of 7.5 million cubic metres of water had been lost over the previous 12 months. To put it another way, this is more than 3 700 000 000 (that’s 3.7 billion) two-litre bottles of Coca-Cola.

In seeking to put a positive spin to this unacceptable figure, Mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water and waste services; and energy, Xanthea Limberg, said the burst pipes’ rate had been reduced from 63.9 bursts per 100km to 31 bursts. 

“Last month, water losses were 17.7%,” she said. It’s worth noting that when politicians use figures and percentages in such an obscure way, it is a clear sign that they don’t have proper answers to difficult questions.

One of the key questions that the Province and City needs to tackle is that of aquifers. In a world in which access to water is becoming a major issue – to the extent that nations are prepared to go to war to control it, or for the right to have access to it, Cape Town has hardly gone beyond speaking about the possible use of the three aquifers that criss-cross the peninsula.

The use of the Table Mountain Group aquifer, the Atlantis aquifer and the Cape Flats aquifer need to be carefully considered. It cannot simply be a case of drilling into them.

In a 2016 feature on “Water Wars”, National Geographic magazine writer Laura Parker wrote that 30 percent of the world’s available freshwater supplies lies underground. But the problem, she said, was that this source of water is being pumped so aggressively around the globe that land is sinking, civil wars are being waged, and agriculture is being transformed.

Using Beijing in China as an example of aquifer-use gone wrong, she pointed out that in some neighbourhoods in the city, “the ground is giving way at a rate of 10cm a year as water in the giant aquifer below it is pumped”.

“The groundwater has been so depleted that China’s capital city, home to more than 20 million people, could face serious disruptions in its rail system, roadways, and building foundations”, an international team of scientists concluded earlier this year. Beijing, despite tapping into the gigantic North China Plain aquifer, is the world’s fifth most water-stressed city and its water problems are likely to get even worse, they said.

This is just one lesson that Cape Town can learn from the experiences of another city. But will its administrators pay heed?

The main lesson is that aquifers must be regenerated. In other words, when water is taken out, other water must be allowed to replace it. Cape Town’s experts ought to know this, and yet the actions of both City and Province with regard to, for example, the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) suggests that other factors – most notably the need to be on good terms with developers – seem to take precedence.

The PHA is the only part of the Cape Flats aquifer in which regeneration can take place. And yet the City is intent on building houses over a large part of its area. The province, moreover, has done nothing to stop this development.

If Zille and Maimane are serious about coming up with an holistic plan to tackle the water shortage in Cape Town, they’d stop the development of housing and malls on the PHA immediately. It will be a small start.

But, do they have the will?

Oakes is the Op-ed and features editor of Independent Media, Cape Town, South Africa