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WATER flowing under central Cape Town directly into the ocean might be natural but it is not all safe for drinking, a local researcher has warned.

Caron von Zeil, an academic whose research about the city’s underground water has been resurfacing, said many of the springs where this water could be accessed are polluted. The water runs from Table Mountain in canals built during the colonial period.

Von Zeil’s project Reclaim Camissa has been about finding ways to use this water. It has been in the news for close on a decade but City of Cape Town or provincial government officials have not worked towards harvesting this water.

Von Zeil cautioned this week that most of the springs – she has located 31 in total – carry e.coli bacteria, which would lead to severe stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting.

“These springs have not been protected to date and many are polluted. We will have a populace with health issues, not something we need in this time of crisis,” she said. Von Zeil said she had maps of where the springs were located and also reportedly said large water reserves exist under Parliament buildings on Plein Street in the city centre.

She said Reclaim Camissa was “monitoring one of the many tunnels, which alone carries 8.8 million litres of water to the ocean daily”. Xanthea Limberg, the City’s mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water and waste services, said the City had “explored in detail whether 69 springs identified on Table Mountain could be incorporated into the drinking water system”.

“The city does currently produce 2.8 million litres of drinking water per day from the Albion Spring in Newlands, and has recently commissioned a new project to produce approximately 2 million litres of drinking water per day from the Oranjezicht Main Springs Chamber,” she said.

“In the case of other springs it has been found that flow is too small to justify the cost of staff and infrastructure required to treat the water to drinking standards.”

She added: “In the interest of ratepayers, the City must ensure that augmentation schemes offer value for money. Procuring greater volumes of water could be done more economically, for instance via aquifer abstraction or the treatment of wastewater, and the City is rather pursuing these options.”

Limberg said that “even if all water from the springs could be incorporated into the drinking water system, they would only be able to service a tiny fraction of the city’s water requirements”.

“In terms of the unused spring water, the City is exploring whether this water could be used for non-potable purposes such as irrigation, as this does not carry the same associated infrastructure costs, and would also take pressure off potable water reserves,” said Limberg.

“The City has applied to the national Department of Water and Sanitation to authorise it to use the water in this way.”

Independent Media reported a few years ago on Reclaim Camissa. It reported that “most of the springs and rivers that flow from Table Mountain have been paved over and forgotten, and each day millions of litres of fresh mountain water rushes away into drains or sewers”.

It added: “Reclaim Camissa won first prize in the 2010 Multiplicity competition for inclusion in the city council’s winning bid for the World Design Capital and it was recognised by the Cape Town Partnership as ‘One of the Big Five Ideas’ for the city.”

Reclaim Camissa has also warned that groundwater should be protected to “allow for recharge of the aquifers”. Limberg said yesterday they advised locals to boil water from springs as “this water could be contaminated”.

Yazeed Kamaldien is a Cape Town based journalist and photographer. He has also worked on independent documentary films. Human rights and unpacking contemporary society have been his focus areas. Website: www.yazkam.com

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