South Africa

South Africa

Explainer: Everything you (n)ever wanted to know about the Cape’s water crisis

As Western Cape dam levels reach a 30-year low and residents brace for “Day Zero”, this week’s Water Indaba in Rawsonville saw nearly 20 government officials and industry experts brainstorming to find solutions. Premier Helen Zille took a bracing view, framing the crisis as an opportunity for innovation, with economic sector representatives painting a somewhat bleaker picture. So just how much trouble are we in? And more specifically, why have interventions been such a long time coming? By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

On Tuesday, members of local and national government gathered alongside multiple industry experts at the Western Cape Water Indaba in Rawsonville, with the Western Cape’s water crisis high on the agenda. Earlier in the week, the City of Cape Town (CoCT) had issued a dire warning to consumers after usable dam water levels dropped to just over 11%: this is not a drill.

At provincial level, at least, the message was upbeat: it’s an opportunity for innovation, and lessons learnt will carry us forward.

Sector reports were more sobering. The damage, they intimated, has already been unjustifiably severe. Food security has taken a major knock and food prices have skyrocketed.

National Water Affairs and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane admitted that the drought had caught authorities napping, saying the water crisis was “overwhelming” and that the country had been caught off guard.

“The fact of the matter was‚ there were plans to deal with the drought but nobody actually expected the magnitude of the problem that we are faced with‚” she said. A steering committee which would include Treasury was on the cards to investigate possible interventions, she added.

But is it too little, too late? CoCT has warned of the need for Level 4 water restrictions, which effectively cut all non-essential use of water. The city has set an ambitious target of cutting consumption by a further 80-million litres, bringing it down to 600-million litres.


The obvious question: how did we get here? Beyond the severity of the worst drought in 100 years, a complex interplay of factors contributed to a crisis that – if one doesn’t mince words – could have been averted. But it’s also short-sighted to point fingers in one direction, says environmental and geographical scientist Dr Kevin Winter, who spoke at the Indaba of a “perfect storm”.

Image: A slide from Dr Winter’s address at the Indaba. To view the complete slide presentation, click here.

First things first: the infrastructure that we need right now is simply not here, and won’t be in the near future. MEC Anton Bredell acknowledged on Tuesday that the Western Cape simply did not have the water tankers needed to supply residents in a pinch.

This was just one structural problem highlighted. Winter stresses that budget for long-term infrastructural improvements doesn’t come easily. The years 2012 – 2014 delivered good rainfall, and as he puts it, it’s “really difficult” to justify billions in additional expenditure outside of crisis times. “It’s really hard to convince people of the need for a climate-proof city when things are working really well,” he told Daily Maverick. “Our focus was only on demand management. Other projects, which were more capital intensive, were waiting until the Western Cape Development Plan came on board – the first one (being) the augmentation of the Voelvlei Dam.”

On a similar note, Winter believes interventions have been at least partially hamstrung by party politics and structural obstacles between local and national government. In his opinion, the City’s drought interventions thus far have averted a far bigger crisis, but a combination of politicking and slow-grinding administrative wheels have also contributed to there being a crisis at all.

“It’s a comment regarding how different tiers are playing with each other,” he said. “One is dealing with a regional problem that is a disaster.”

At the Indaba, Zille confirmed that Bredell would be declaring the greater Cape Town area a disaster area, which would mean the province can now access additional help from national government to manage the drought. A team of officials from the department of water and sanitation and the national disaster management committee are working with the Western Cape Province to ensure short- to medium-term solutions are fast-tracked, Mokonyane added.

But, Winter points out, it’s unclear how much budget is really available for Water Affairs at national level. Second, it is as yet unclear exactly what level of commitment will be coming from national level even if budget is available. “[T]his is not a politically based region where we need to play opposition politics, but a serious human and developmental disaster”.

Related to problematic political structures, adds Winter, unhelpful policies also create bureaucratic environments where valuable expertise is lost. After 2005, the expertise of several engineers who had seen out their five-year tenure was lost. “We tripped ourselves up a little bit in the political arrangement before expertise was brought back,” he says. “Unfortunately, officials find themselves at the whim of five-year programmes.”

How bad is it?

Government officials walk a tightrope between needing to avert panic but sufficiently impress upon the public the extent of the disaster. Mayoral Committee Member for Informal Settlements, Water and Waste Services, Councillor Xanthea Limberg, says efforts to save water so far have been commendable, but consumer responses to changes in weather are erratic.

“Our water users continue to respond to the unpredictable climatic conditions by using more water as soon as it heats up, but seemingly also when there is rain,” she said. “This approach is exacerbating the effects of the enduring and severe drought. Such phenomena are expected to become more frequent as a result of the impact of climate change. In addition, the severity and scale of drought episodes is increasingly difficult to predict.” The take-home message: water restrictions are not a short-term intervention and a few drops of rain don’t mean relief.

The short answer: it’s bad. The drought has had a major negative impact on the economy overall, but more directly, inadequate water management means South Africa is spending R7 billion each year on avoidable water losses. The drought is not expected to let up any time soon.

There are too many variables to calculate easily how much rainfall would be needed to bring the Cape out of the danger zone: evaporation, run-off, and environmental sustainability all play their part. A simpler calculation is the water required, which is a similarly variable figure ranging from 450 million cubic litres per day as an absolute baseline, to the 1.2 billion cubic litres consumed in January 2016. Rainfall is almost moot in the short term. Regardless of how much rain falls now, interventions are necessary and restrictions must be observed.

Now, says Winter, the City has adopted a more general policy stance discussed in 2016, “when we saw things were looking very dubious”. When dam levels are below 80% at the start of summer, “that is the time to raise the red flag,” he says, particularly since rainfall patterns in recent years indicate that the rains are coming later. Tight restrictions can be expected until 70–80% of storage capacity has been reached.

“That is cautious approach that should have been put in place when we first saw the water dropping, when it was at 62% in October,” says Winter.

Proposed solutions (and will they do any good?)

Here’s the good news: the Western Cape’s local government, believes Winter, is aware that every possible intervention must be unrolled whether national government offers adequate support or not.

Premier Zille took an optimistic view of the crisis, saying: “This is an opportunity for South Africa to emerge as the fastest-growing water economy in the world. Our innovation, however, must be coupled with properly maintaining our current bulk infrastructure, repairing it where necessary and investing in new infrastructure for greater capacity.”

What exactly does this mean? Bredell’s spokesperson James Brent-Styan summarised the planned interventions: a) the Berg River-Voelvlei augmentation scheme, which will divert surplus winter water into the dam and improve its yield; the possible fast-tracking of the development of the Table Mountain Group Aquifer, which is already being put to use in Hermanus; water re-use on a macro level, similar to that underway in Beaufort-West; and seawater desalination, which Bredell earlier described as a last resort due to the cost. An accelerated water supply scheme was released by Limberg in March.

The latter, says Winter, “looks to me like the most useful programme at this stage, and shows actual interventions on the ground”. The strategy, which included descriptions of the expected yield, covered short-term interventions from April – June 2018.

Short-term infrastructural changes that can deliver immediate relief include the digging of channels to some dams, including the beleaguered Theewaterskloof, which will enable the currently unusable final 10% to be drawn up to the abstraction point. The Wemmershoek dam, meanwhile, has been kept aside for emergency relief. It is far from full, but does offer additional water supply should taps run dry.

There are other crisis interventions which need not be too arduous, says Winter, including the use of water stored at the top of Table Mountain. “With a bit of effort that water can be brought down,” he says. “There are small things that can allow us to squeak by on a week-to-week basis.”

In the long term, he stresses, the only feasible solution is water sensitive cities that use alternative sources of water, manage aquifers effectively, use treated effluent and storm water, and similar interventions. The crucial missing piece is monitoring, which is currently not available for many of the feasible longer-term solutions.

Corporate innovators, meanwhile, have also hopped on board. Procter &Gamble has through its Children’s Safe Drinking Water Programme managed to raise 1.2-million days of clean drinking water and developed four-gram sachets of powdered Purifier of Water. Each packet treats 10 litres of heavily contaminated water by effectively killing bacteria and viruses and removing parasites and solid materials, says Khululiwe Mabaso, CSI Associate Director for Sub-Saharan Africa at P&G. With a bucket, a spoon, a cloth and a Purifier of Water Packet, ten litres of dirty water can be purified in 30 minutes.

Groundwater, although widely touted as a solution, is not quite so simple: Winter points out that scientific knowledge of our aquifers is currently “quite flimsy” and longer term sustainability studies are not yet available. In order to test how fast an aquifer recharges, one has to first start tapping into it. Sustainability requires constant monitoring, and monitoring systems are patchy at best. Boreholes in the Cape Flats Aquifer, for example, are not monitored as they should be and currently, many of the City’s boreholes are using non-functional monitors. “Regular monitoring through dedicated boreholes is incredibly limited,” says Winter. Sewage effluent, too, would require stringent monitoring.

Most importantly, Winter believes, research needs to undergo a fundamental shift. “This situation has caught us all napping, actually,” he says. “There is a perception that climate change will be much more distant and gradual than it is. You can be as upbeat as you like (about possible interventions) but if you don’t have the scientific information, you are not going to shift the money.”

Better communication around forecasting, climate change and weather variability will all play a role. “The models project themselves to 2040, 2060, or 100 years later. There are no models that look at 6-8 weeks. The difficulty with this is that you take the position, unintentionally, that we can adapt along the way.” The current crisis, he believes, is exemplary evidence that we cannot.

Bottom line: the Western Cape’s predicament is very, very serious. But if no effort is wasted, there is a way out. And to some extent, the crisis has issued a wake-up call. DM

Photo: This view shows how low Theewaterskloof is, May 2017. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks