Under increasing pressure to provide water to drought-weary citizens, officials in the Western Cape have begun drilling for groundwater. But speeding ahead with the drilling has already had concerning environmental consequences, including spilling sludge into river water, foreign algae blooms and the threatening of critically endangered fynbos that grows nowhere else in the world. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.
See Part One here
It’s not only water supply at stake when pressure mounts to provide short-term water augmentation. Related is the wellbeing of conservation areas critical to preserving some of South Africa’s biodiversity hotspots – home to some of its globally unique fynbos.
Some of these species are already critically endangered, and drilling has begun in their last known habitats.
When ecologists first warned that borehole drilling near Steenbras could have serious environmental consequences, Xanthea Limberg, Cape Town Mayco Member for informal settlements, water and waste services and energy, responded that the city would be “drilling sensitively” and it was proceeding with the relevant water use licences and approvals.
But conservationists are concerned that legal approval did not require an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA); and say emergency measures have left room for risky approvals they believe were unnecessary. And though officials say they will be consulting with experts as drilling continues, conservationists worry that avoidable damage has been done already.
Ecologists say the consequences of operating without impact assessment is becoming apparent – including the potential destruction of critically endangered fynbos species found nowhere else in the world. Moreover, destabilising ecosystems does not only threaten individual species. It threatens the integrity of the entire catchment area – which in turn can impact the biodiversity that supports water security.
But authorities argue they have acted as responsibly as was feasible. Under increasing political pressure to augment Cape Town’s dwindling water supply, drilling has proceeded for groundwater at several sites, many on government-owned – and government-protected – land.
As noted in part one, the majority of the 222 known drilling sites planned fall within ecosystems listed as threatened under National Environmental Management Act (NEMA), and more than half fall within formally protected areas.
These include the Wemmershoek area, the last known habitat of several fynbos species including the critically endangered Erica bakeri. Conservationist and Chair of Gondwana Plants, Robert Blackhall Miles, recently Tweeted, “Morning spent looking at South Africa borehole maps and my heart dropped like a stone when I realised there is borehole drilling/ ditches through the habitat of #CriticallyEndangered Diastella buekii.”
Environmental journalist Adam Welz quoted botanist Jasper Slingsby’s response: “Last known population of Erica bakeri too. Goodbye… How many thoughtless flushes were you worth?”
The Cape Floral Region is one of the world’s six floral kingdoms. It is by far the smallest and, relative to its size, the most diverse. It represents less than 0.5% of the area of Africa but is home to nearly 20% of the continent’s flora, and the density and endemism of the flora are among the highest worldwide. Inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2004, the Cape Floral Region’s protected areas, according to Unesco, make up one of the world’s great centres of terrestrial biodiversity.
Besides Wemmershoek, other areas have seen adverse effects too. Ecologists earlier warned drilling could not be guaranteed as safe without further investigation around Steenbras. That area, though it could at the time legally be drilled without an EIA, has a new, foreign, red algae blooming in a nearby stream. If the pH of the water changes too much as a result of the drilling, it could have devastating consequences for the ecosystem.
Near Stellenbosch, in the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, a drilling rig was spotted right next to the Eerste River. In February 2018, there was a drilling sludge spill into the river, which left chemical-laced mud slurry pouring into the water. The effects on the river’s riparian ecosystem are unknown.
“The fynbos biome has ±9,000 plant species, of which ±80% occur nowhere else in the world,” ecologist Adam West told Daily Maverick. “It is recognised internationally as one of the globally important biodiversity hotspots. As a result, large areas of it are designated world heritage sites and protected areas.
“A high fraction of the really special species in this region – plants, and animals like frogs, occur in wetlands and seeps, the very systems that might be affected by groundwater abstraction, and with highly localised distribution. So, it is a unique situation in that exploiting parts of the TMG might be impacting the most sensitive part of this very special place.”
The City of Cape Town and other, nearby municipalities that have proceeded with drilling have not done so illegally; and a few short weeks ago were facing the prospect of dry taps in a matter of weeks. The Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEADP) has issued directives to several municipalities under S30A – emergency procedures. Daily Maverick spoke to City of Cape Town officials regarding their position.
“The pressure that the city as an administration is facing, is primarily driven by a drought of unprecedented scale. The city therefore has both a short- to medium-term as well as a medium to long-term augmentation programme that forms part of our 30-year water demand planning cycle,” Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson told Daily Maverick.
The schemes were also compliant with NEMA, he added. “The (DEADP) directive permits augmentation schemes to proceed without unnecessary delays, but it does not exempt the city or anyone from compliance with NEMA or any other applicable legislation.
“In addition, the projects still have to comply with the approved EMP, method statement and general duty of care which aims to protect the environment and ensures compliance with applicable legislation. Each project has a dedicated Environmental Control Officer who monitors and ensures compliance with statutory requirements.”
Neilson says screening of the approved drilling sites will be done by (the) Environmental Management Department (EMD), along with independent specialists in ecological and freshwater systems, and with input from CapeNature and other relevant government bodies.
“While drilling is permissible in the utility zone, a duty of care would apply, and sensitive features or areas must be avoided and disturbance minimised. Each drilling is required to comply with the approved Environmental Management Programme and method statement, over and above the duty of care.”
Neilson also says geohydrology specialists have confirmed that they are comfortable and confident with the city’s groundwater abstraction targets. “These targets are supported by historic studies, updated modelling done as part of the current water resilience programme, and preliminary results from recent geophysical surveys.”
It is the responsibility of the National Department of Water and Sanitation to assess impacts and award licences on the basis of the information available and submitted as part of the water use licence application, Neilson added.
“The Water Use Licences include specific conditions relating to water use, aquifer management and monitoring which will guide how the city utilises and manages the groundwater resources.”
Mayco Member for Transport and Urban Development Brett Herron echoed Neilson’s sentiments. “The city’s EMD, together with other relevant city departments, are making every effort to try and limit the impact of the drilling as much as we possibly can.
“A full environmental impact assessment is desirable; however, it is acknowledged that we are in a water crisis. The EMD is involved and works closely with engineers, geologists and project managers to ensure minimal disruption to the natural environment,” he said.
But the letter of the law doesn’t necessarily require sufficient consultation to prevent damage, argues independent environmental consultant Mark Botha – and he, and others, are calling for caution. “To satisfy our law on environmental management principles, let alone commitments to international treaties and the constitutional right to have the environment protected, we should explore all options to secure alternative water before violating critical ecological infrastructure, especially within nature reserves,” he says. “There are many disturbed areas we could drill in first to realise the yield we need.”
There are also “more sensible” ways to mitigate drilling impacts, he says, including through better restoration of the impacted water ecosystems. “We didn’t need to jump into pristine wetlands in our mountain catchment protected areas.
“The water users of the Western Cape are going to have to pay more to invest in maintaining our catchments – a substantially cheaper augmentation options than boreholes and desalination.”
Kate Snaddon, a researcher for the Freshwater Research Centre, agrees. “It is foolish to damage or destroy the very systems crucial for water supply to assure short-term water security,” she says. “It is especially foolish to pursue this hasty solution without sufficient knowledge of the impacts of the solution. We don’t yet know the full implications of the groundwater abstraction.”
There has been no impact monitoring done to date in the Western Cape, Snaddon says – only baseline monitoring, i.e. data collection prior to abstraction, which she argues is not sufficient to confidently predict the impacts on surface freshwater ecosystems. “Our knowledge of the thresholds of potential concern for freshwater ecosystems is limited.”
Regarding the drilling sites, she says the impacts are “more obvious and of great concern” – sediment deposition, algal blooms, and deterioration in water quality.
Welz believes there has been an “overall lack of transparency” about the environmental impacts of borehole drilling. “Provincial government, local authorities and their contractors have kept a lot of information out of the public eye,” he says. “We don’t know what the environmental management plans are after they have drilled, to make sure no crucial wetlands are dried up.”
Welz is also concerned about the further-reaching impacts. “Remember, it’s not just the hole we’re concerned about. There must be access to the site, which means roads, the water must be taken to the distribution network, which means pipelines, and pumps must be powered, which means electric lines, either buried or overhead. All of this degrades the value of these areas for conservation and their value as tourism assets.”
Conversely, says the Greater Cape Town Water Fund, strategic conservation can have a major positive impact on water security. A prioritisation study by the GCTWF identified the top 12 catchments with the best return-on-investment potential, and found that rehabilitating these 12 areas out of 187 could delay Day Zero by 58 days.
Welz, Slingsby, West and Botha say in their opinion, the drilling is not going to deliver “significant” water supply before the rainy season, so it would be prudent to slow down and introduce additional assessments rather than potentially jeopardising important conservation areas.
“The Western Cape provincial environmental authorities issued a directive to streamline the environmental authorisation process for water infrastructure on the 30th of May 2017, which shows that they were expecting drilling back then already, but key environmental scientists were not engaged in the planning process until much later, until it was too late to prevent some of the damage that we’re seeing now,” says Welz.
But officials are adamant that the crisis they were facing was unprecedented – and Day Zero was until recently believed to be imminent. Public pressure to deliver updates on augmentation schemes has been on the rise.
So what now? Christine Colvin, Senior Manager, Freshwater Programmes WWF-SA says the concerns raised need not be a death sentence for aquifer drilling – even in emergency circumstances; but that the call for additional consultation must be heeded now. “Although drilling is needed to ensure that groundwater can make up a critical component of our future resilient water supplies, our authorities have neglected some important areas of coordination and care that could have mitigated damage,” she told Daily Maverick.
“Ecologists have offered to screen sites in a rapid emergency process to minimise the risk to rare species. Even without full EIA processes, there could have been much better emergency coordination between the different provincial government departments to ensure adequate duty of care.
“It is now going to be critical that we resource organisations like SAEON and DEADP to monitor the impacts of drilling as it starts happening. We will have to build a new cohort of eco-hydrologists who can understand the impacts of changing hydrology on groundwater dependent ecosystems.
“If we invest in competent practitioners and ensure that we have the right scientific data, which actually influences decisions about how much water we are abstracting, we should be able to manage this resource sustainably.” DM
Photo: Ramin Khatibi (Unsplash)