The water debate in Cape Town

Low dam levels continue and water restrictions remain. Picture: Henk Kruger/ANA Pictures

Millions of households have responded to the crisis cutting down on water use. But will the city respond to its own call for the ‘new normal’? 

The water crisis has brought about radical change in our behaviour with water. For Muslims the act of cleansing (wudu) before every prayer is an essential part of prayer. For years mosques have struggled to convey the conservation message to congregants. It took a crisis to change our behaviour.

A typical golf course uses up to 3.8 million litres of water per week in summer to maintain healthy vegetation. Think of how many golf courses make up lawns in the city and province. Billions litres of water is wasted in maintaining a Eurocentric lifestyle in Africa. As water tariffs bite deeper, groundwater has become the water of choice for those with money with an unmonitored and thus unknown impact on the resource. The Californian experience has reference.

Twenty-five percent of the earth’s total freshwater supply is stored as ground water, while less than 1% is stored in surface water resources, such as rivers, lakes, and soil moisture.

Agriculture uses 70% of our water resources. In 2016 the Provincial Departments of Agriculture and Environment released their AgriSmart policy that promotes what they call conservation agriculture. It encourages farmers to switch their land management practices to reduce their water use, reduce the use of fertilizers and insecticides, protect biodiversity and protect degraded soil from decades of exploitation. It is estimated that in this way over a period of 5 years, agriculture could reduce their water use by a whopping 50%. Small-scale farmers – who are mostly organic growers – are already showing how this is done.

Will the DA punish white industrial farmers to switch to conservation agriculture and save water as they done to households?

As Cape Town has grown over the last 20 years, urban settlements have expanded into the surrounding countryside. This urban sprawl outwards destroys our green spaces and, more importantly, our farmlands. These spaces are our food security, our water security, our climate mitigation, and our stormwater harvesting and recharge areas.

The drought and water crisis has moved the city’s attention to groundwater. But if urban sprawl continues, the soil will be sealed with asphalt and concrete and groundwater starved of recharge. Inner city and peri-urban green spaces is our flood mitigation. The 2017 Mumbai and Houston floods has reference.

The opposite of urban sprawl is densification and this in our political context is a social justice issue – returning people of colour to the inner-city and CBDs. It is also the optimal use of land, resources and infrastructure. Think of the kilometres of new water piping, via urban sprawl, that has to be laid which will need maintenance for decades to come.

Water loss due to ageing infrastructure is more than 100 million litres per day. In a retrogressive way, the city is allowing densification driven by property developers leading to gentrification in the city. To further support developers the city removed a key planning tool and public participation process – the urban edge – completely. Will the DA continue to promote urban sprawl and gentrification of our farmlands?

The city’s new water plan is a mystery. The mayor said in January that she is going to pursue groundwater and recycling. The DA is also pursuing large scale desalination. The city produces 400 million litres of waste water a day. This water is cleaned at our sewage works and dumped into the sea with only 7% re-used mostly on council-operated parks and sports facilities. Thirty-six million litres of untreated sewage is dumped into the sea off Granger Bay and False Bay – a public health issue and ecocide.

Recycling waste is what Mother Nature does. All the water present on our planet has been recycled for millions of years. It has come to us through the bodies of dinosaurs and children’s tears. Investing in desalination is similar to controversial nuclear energy; money will flow away from renewables – in the case of water, building a water system integrating aquifer water, surface water, industrial waste water, stormwater and sewage. The humble Atlantis Water Scheme outside Cape Town has been showing the way for decades.

Who will pay for the new water supply plan?

Water is severely underpriced and cost recovery is not being achieved. To achieve water security, an estimated capital funding gap of around of R33 billion per annum for the next 10 years must be achieved through a combination of improved revenue generation and a significant reduction of costs.

Where will this money to come from?

The latest CoCT water tariffs punish frugality and rewards high users. This is a regressive tax. What about imposing a water tax with the principle the more you use, the more you pay. This will result in commerce, industry and business pay the real cost of their water use.

Currently they externalising their water cost to citizens/ households to such an extent that cool drinks, juices, wine and beer are in abundance, but drinking water has become a scarce commodity. The poor have been living with a water crisis forever.

The PHA Campaign has been raising the protection of the Cape Flats Aquifer for almost 10 years. It has held two aquifer seminars supported by WRC and WWF. The Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) is drought-proof because of the aquifer; moreover, the aquifer – if used as part of a Managed Aquifer Recharge plan – could provide 1/3 of the city’s potable water.

Managed Aquifer Recharge has kept Windhoek wet for 40 years. The town of Atlantis is off dam water completely due to successful Managed Aquifer Recharge. A 2009 CoCT study declared the farmlands “irreplaceable”. The 2017 MEC Tribunal Ruling called for the heritage protection of the PHA thus “it’s not in the interest of the citizens of Cape Town to develop the PHA, [and] the importance of the Cape Flats Aquifer and the relationship between the land, the city as a whole and climate change, were found to be of critical importance”

Cape Town is famous for its boutique wine estates. It’s become common to see lush green vineyards in our rural [and urban] water stressed landscape. Wine production is a thirsty business. The water footprint of a wine is 870 litre of water per litre of wine. The city’s latest Spatial Development Framework gives wine production extensive protections while it has downgraded current and potential horticultural areas – in particular the PHA and Joostenbergvlakte.

This will lead to the loss of thousands more hectares of prime agricultural land that could secure a sustainable future.

Food insecurity is on the rise. Our climate is under increasing attack from a supermarket transport system that delivers food to our plate from as far away as Kenya and Brazil. This is a burden on our economy as rands are used to import oil while we could be using the currency better.

Horticulture nourishes people with a diversity of nutrition from vegetables, fruits, berries, herbs, nuts and even small animal and fish protein. Horticulture is labour intensive while wine farms employ seasonal workers.

Our city is a diverse community, so wine will always have a place in our economy. But will the DA develop policy that protects, promotes and enhances our horticultural farmlands and support horticultural farmers as it does winelands and wine farmers?

Last week, the PHA Campaign called for both the city and the province to declare environmental protection around the PHA to protect the Cape Flats Aquifer. This is response to the rapacious hacking away at its 3 000 hectares that developers have achieved permission for over the last 10 years.

Will the DA respond to the Campaign call to use the municipal planning by-law to provide protection for the PHA as per 1988 guideplan map, or will the DA join the developers in the High Court against the PHA Campaign?

Will the Provincial Department of Environment use the Provincial Environmental Management Act to protect the PHA, or will they join the developers in the High Court against every single citizen of the city? 

Will the DA change its colonial-settler patriarchal governance where it engages with citizens through media releases and top-down monologues, and develop a new water supply plan and billing system in collaboration with citizens- its voters?

Nazeer Sonday is a small-scale farmer and social activist