Op-Ed: Don’t let the City of Cape Town gaslight you — the water crisis is not your fault
- Jason Norwood-Young
- South Africa
- 23 Jan 2018 (South Africa)
So, government knew the problem was coming. They even had a pretty good idea of when it would happen. And they had all the plans in place to mitigate the disaster. Somewhere between planning in 2009 and today, the wheels fell off, nothing was done. By JASON NORWOOD-YOUNG.
In 2014, the City of Cape Town presciently changed its slogan from "The city that works for you" to “Making Progress Possible. Together”. It was a clever shift in responsibility, an “ask not what your country can do for you” moment. Fast-forward five years and the pay-off line is paying off, for the city at least. It's not its fault that we're running out of water -- it's the wasteful citizens of the city, making day zero possible. Together.
The language of the press release distributed by the city last week would give most communications professionals pause — attacking your clients isn't usually the best tactic in disaster communications. “Sixty percent of Capetonians aren't saving water. We must force them,” it kicks off in the bullet points, and then goes on the attack, calling the majority of Capetonians callous, uncaring and delusional. And we've only reached the second paragraph.
Then it discusses the “punitive tariff”, which is positioned as a punishment for the incalcitrant Capetonians, who also had the gall to reject a proposed “drought charge”, which will now result in us being punished as “deep cuts” would have to be made to the city's infrastructure projects.
We then hop into the 50 litres per person daily limit, although this is really a
The press release wraps up with the “advanced Day Zero preparation” section. In terms of carrots and sticks, it’s all been sticks so far, but this is by far the biggest: If any of residents use more than 50 litres per person per day, we will all be cut off. It’s the equivalent of the teacher stating: “You have Mr Jones to thank for your detention. Feel free to thank him after I leave.”
And this is the underlying message of the presser: It's your fault. We tried to warn you, we really did, but in the
Except that isn't the story. It isn't our fault. We paid our taxes. We relied on government to build infrastructure and make plans and do its job. We did save water when
The city did release a map purportedly showing household water usage, but it has serious problems: Many properties are blank, which has led people to theorise that those properties are the ones over the
Since we don't know how many people live
Occasionally properties without data are marked, but properties reporting “zero” are lumped together with “no data
The purpose of all this (
Another trope is that the water shortage is due to an
Wolski's data don't cover 1,150 years, either.
Wolski does believe his research lets government off the hook: “I have an impression that the results somewhat exonerate the Cape’s government, as well as water engineers designing the Cape Town’s water supply system from blame for the current water crisis,” he states. But the water crisis was predicted, quite accurately, by those water engineers. And you didn't need a degree in hydrology or access to
The Wikipedia entry for the Western Cape's Water Supply System states: “It is expected that demand in the area served by the system will exceed supply by 2019, and possibly even earlier if water availability diminishes because of climate change and if water conservation measures in Cape Town should not be as successful as envisaged.” This would have been extremely useful information, if only someone in government had checked Wikipedia
But we can't trust Wikipedia blindly. Mschiffler conveniently cited his source, and by some miracle, the original document that he or she based their information on is still online, eight years later. And this document, the fifth issue of the Western Cape Water Reconciliation Strategy, makes for some really riveting reading.
“Does Cape Town have enough water?” starts this March 2009 document by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. "No." Well, there you have it.
It qualifies this statement by explaining that the Berg river alone is not enough to supply Cape Town, but that it gets other water from other catchment areas, such as the all-important Theewaterskloof. It then tackles the question again, and comes up with a "Yes: At the moment… The above-mentioned transfer schemes and the Berg River Project which came on stream last year will be able to provide in the area’s water requirement until approximately 2013, after which additional resources will have to be implemented and/or developed."
Regardless, the city did well, reducing water usage, stopping leaks, and buying us a few years. So, according to this document, when did we expect the water to run out? "According to the scenario planning model, this means that, with the Berg River Dam now in operation and with the successful implementation of all WC/WDM measures, a new intervention should only be required to be on stream by 2019. As it takes a number of years to plan, approve, design and implement a large new scheme (the Berg River Dam took 18 years from inception to implementation and some of the less conventional methods may even take longer), decisions on new interventions must be made in the near future. Added to this urgency is the fact that external factors such as climate change, which could result in lower rainfall and thus less runoff in the Berg River, and the CCT’s WC/WDM strategy implementation not being as successful as anticipated, could bring forward the need for a new water source earlier than 2019."
Reading this in 2009, with a mere 10 years to go — provided we had good rains — one would be left with a slightly anxious feeling. We need large infrastructure, and soon. Luckily, the engineers were on it. The Steenbras dam was going to be raised. Three water diversions were meant to move water to rivers that fed Cape Town. Two Voëlvlei augmentation schemes were going to buy us a few more years.
There were also some really whacky ideas, such as a desalination plant: “The CCT has approved the construction of a pilot seawater desalination plant on the West Coast.” How about an aquifer: “The Table Mountain Group (TMG) Aquifer (found in all the mountain ranges of the Western Cape) has been identified as a potential large-scale groundwater resource. The CCT started an exploratory drilling programme in 2008 to learn more about the aquifer and inform the siting of a pilot well field.”
The “newsletter”, although not an official document, spells out option after option for saving Cape Town from the impending, definite, here-by-2019-or-earlier water crisis. More than just options, it sounds like most of these initiatives are well on their way to implementation. Yet where are they today?
Former Executive Deputy Cape Town Mayor, Grant Haskin (ACDP), corroborates the fact that the City of Cape Town knew long before the fact that it was going to run out of water, and he cites reports long before 2009, two reports coming from
“Earlier this year the city and senior politicians said this drought caught them by surprise. That is utter nonsense,” stated Haskins in a speech to the council.
Heart FM radio journalist Graeme Raubenheimer investigated Haskin's claims, and asked the question in a fact-checking exercise: “Did the City of Cape Town in 2002 (15 years ago) have intelligence and/or evidence to suggest the municipality needed to save water, in the case of a possible future water crisis?” Raubenheimer concludes: “The time aspect of Haskin’s '15 years or more' claim has been fact-checked, and it is correct.” Raubenheimer goes a bit further: “The City of Cape Town was handed intelligence in 2001 suggesting it needed to save water in case of a possible water crisis. The city had at least 16 years to prepare.”
And while the city encourages its citizens to work together to make it a better place to live, it's slightly beyond our scope to spontaneously undertake massive water infrastructure projects on our own initiative. For this, we pay
No matter how much they protest and obfuscate, it's a fine time for those in power to take responsibility. Whether the fault lies with
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