South Africa

Op-Ed: Don’t let the City of Cape Town gaslight you — the water crisis is not your fault

By Jason Norwood-Young 23 January 2018

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 pauseattacking 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 request, since the city has no way to enforce it en masse. The issue with the punitive tariff, as well as the 50 litres, is that the City of Cape Town has no way of knowing how many people live in each house. The last South African General Census was performed in 2011, and in the intervening years, one expects a fair amount of births, deaths, and migrations. The population has increased by an estimated 260,000 people between the 2011 Census and the 2016 Statistics South Africa Community Survey, which uses a sample to extrapolate population statistics. The latter is useful for generalisation, dangerous for specifics, like: “There are four people living at this property.”

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 end you did it to yourselves, and you only have yourselves to blame.

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 we we were asked. You’d be hard-pressed to find this 60% of callous Capetonians in a city obsessed with saving water. The 60% number is never justified or clarified, and its source is never revealed.

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 10,000 litre allocation. However, when properties we know that are over consumption are compared to properties that aren’t metered, both are blank, so blank means nothing. However, leaving this up to people’s interpretation is a dangerous game.

Since we don’t know how many people live in each property, it’s also impossible to extrapolate whether the properties that are marked are doing a good or bad job. It could be one person using 10kl per month, or 10 using under 6kl.

Occasionally properties without data are marked, but properties reporting “zero” are lumped together with “no data”, as if this is the same thing. It’s a poor map at best, and a damaging, dangerous map at worst.

The purpose of all this (mis) information is clear: shifting blame from government. “People like say that it’s your fault”, said Western Cape Premier (and former Cape Town mayor) Helen Zille in a speech last year, “which is a fair point and we can debate that; but that doesn’t create the most conducive circumstances for pulling together as a whole of society”. This concept has been championed on social media by the “Now is not the time for blame” brigade. Yet there does seem to be time and energy to blame the public, while insisting that we provide the solution to a problem we didn’t create.

Another trope is that the water shortage is due to an unforseable drought. Time has called it a “once in a millennium drought, which seems to come from analysis by Piotr Wolski, a hydrologist from the University of Cape Town’s Climate System Analysis Group. According to his results, the drought is a one-in-1,000-year event, but only based on a narrow definition of: “How often do we expect to have two consecutive years this dry?” At three-year intervals, it occurs every 628 years; four year intervals, every 63 years. And with a five-year interval, we can expect the next “drought” in 10 years time.

Wolski’s data don’t cover 1,150 years, either. If fact, his research is based on the rainfall from 1923 to 2015 (92 years) in the area of Altydgedacht, near Durbanville, nowhere near Cape Town’s major catchment areas. He had to extrapolate the 2016 and 2017 drought years using data from other stations, and build a statistical probability model to get to the results. That isn’t to say that Wolski’s models or predictions are bad, but to distill them to a sound-bite of “worst drought in a millennium” loses all those caveats, and gives ammo to those who know best how to use out-of-context statistics as weapons: politicians.

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 governmental reports to find out about it: you just needed Wikipedia.

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 some time between December 2009, when Wikipedia user “Mschiffler” created this entry, and now.

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.”

Clearly we made it past 2013, and this is due to the City of Cape Town’s water conservation and water demand management, which is described in the document, and has clearly been a success. Cape Town Councillor Xanthea Limberg told us: “In August 2017 the non-revenue water percentage (processed water that never gets to a tap) was 23.39%, calculated on a 12-month rolling basis. This compares very favourably with the national average of approximately 39%.” Twenty-three percent does sound high, but most cities around the world aim for 25% or less, after which the cost of reducing leaks increases sharply, diminishing the returns. (Although an argument could be made that Cape Town’s water economics are now exceptional, and we should be modelling ourselves on the Philippines, which managed to reduce loss from 63% to 11%, rather than comparing ourselves to the rest of South Africa.)

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 goprovided we had good rainsone 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 2002 , stating that Cape Town would face dangerous water scarcity.

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.”

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.

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 taxes, and entrust our government to use them judiciously, effectively and timeously.

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 national government, the department of water and sanitation, the Western Cape provincial government or the City of Cape Town is moot: they all should take responsibility. The only people who shouldn’t shoulder the blame for this damned messalthough they will shoulder the consequencesis us, the citizens. DM

Photo: Flickr

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