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From the Inside: Day Zero Memes and Myths abound – let’s get back to essentials

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

Discussions during the past week have proved, once again, that fiction has more traction than fact, especially on an emotive issue. Also this week we saw, for the first time, a growing number of residents understanding the seriousness of what we are facing. Let me be plain: We can only postpone the arrival of Day Zero by saving water.

Finding oneself caught in a vortex of complex, rapidly changing developments is a common experience in politics. In the midst of controversy, it is essential from time to time to press the pause button and analyse the situation in order to separate the signals from the static.

This column does this in relation to the water crisis. Although I have written several articles on it, discussions during the past week have proved, once again, that fiction has more traction than fact, especially on an emotive issue.

There are videos and memes circulating on social media that perpetuate a series of myths that have morphed into “truths” repeated around thousands of suburban dinner tables and (empty) office water dispensers.

So it’s time for a summary of the essentials.

In the interests of brevity, I’ll start in 2014 when the dams feeding the Western Cape Water Supply System were full-to-overflowing.

Now, four years later, they are at real risk of running dry.

This is not a normal drought. Hydrologists analysing rainfall records as far back as they go have calculated that a severe three-year drought in the Western Cape has a .25% chance of occurring. This is plotted on a time graph as a “once-in-400-year event”. No government can plan and allocate budgets for such rare events. If we did, most of our effort and money would be devoted to preparing for calamities that would never happen (when we don’t even have adequate resources for our routine jobs). That is why all governments have a transversal disaster management function to deal with these very rare events, should they occur.

At the end of 2015, after our first low-rainfall winter, the Western Cape government applied, through the National Disaster Management Centre, for the declaration of a provincial state of disaster, as we were concerned about the possible impact of a second dry winter in 2016. Citing the fact that our dams were still 75% full, the national government rejected our request, but enabled us to declare “municipal disasters” in the six worst-affected local government areas.

I must confess, I understood the national department’s logic: With dams 75% full, we could still get through the 2016 winter, even if the drought continued, as long as everyone consciously started to save water. It was important to use this as an opportunity to start changing South Africa’s profligate water culture. This is essential if our population continues to grow in one of the 30 driest countries on Earth.

Our fears of another dry winter in 2016 materialised, and the situation became really serious.

Early in 2017, when we were profoundly worried about the outside chance of the drought continuing into its third winter, the South African Weather Service calmed our nerves by predicting a “wetter than normal” rainy season.

Despite this, we continued to press for the provincial disaster declaration, especially in greater Cape Town, which would enable us to prepare for the worst-case scenario of the drought continuing (as unlikely as it seemed) by shifting funds between budgets, and undertaking more rapid procurement measures, where necessary. And crucially, a disaster declaration would have helped us to highlight national government’s role in providing increased bulk water supply for a rapidly growing city caught in the claws of climate change.

Our request was once more rejected, with the national department of Water and Sanitation publicly dismissing our appeal as an attempt by us to get more money for water infrastructure (as if this was some sort of nefarious hidden agenda). Of course, we wanted more infrastructure (such as desalination plants). We needed them.

We pointed out that, despite the SA Weather Service’s optimistic predictions of rain, a continuation of the drought was at least an outside possibility, and it was now essential to take pre-emptive action.

The national department’s reply was simple: you are not getting any more money. You have to do this by cutting water use.

Déjà vu. The department had said exactly the same in the early 2000s when the City was engaged in a battle with them over the need to build the Berg River Dam. Fortunately, the City got its way, otherwise we would have run out of water long ago. The dam’s contribution to the Western Cape Water Supply System should have met our needs till 2022 – were it not for this unpredictable and unprecedented drought.

This does not mean that increasing supply, on its own, would provide the answer to a climate-change challenge that we call the “new normal”. Having read quite a lot about the impending water crisis, worldwide, I understand the point the national department’s hydrologists were making about “demand management” (even though drastically reducing water use was never going to be enough, on its own, to prevent our taps running dry).

And while we were doing our best to get the “water saving” message across, it was galling to read how much money the national government was lavishing on increasing water infrastructure elsewhere in the country, and how these disbursements were inexplicably ballooning. (In the Giyani water augmentation scheme in Limpopo, for example, the initial budget of R500-million somehow ended up as an expenditure of R2,8-billion). It is easy to join the dots in relation to the Department of Water and Sanitation’s projects (following their latest audit outcome which showed the worst levels of irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure in the country).

Neither is it surprising that the national government chose to ignore Cape Town’s water augmentation needs, thereby creating the real risk that it would become the first major city in the world to run out of water.

Best of all, in this scenario, the DA could be blamed for the crisis.

In this context, the biggest mistake the City could have made was to step up to the plate to take responsibility for a national government function — the provision of bulk water infrastructure. In making unrealistic commitments about water augmentation, the City played right into the narrative that the national government was determined to create – that the water crisis was a result of the City’s failure, and that it was doing too little too late (about something it should not have been doing anything about at all).

Trying to procure emergency bulk water infrastructure within the constraints of the Municipal Finance Management Act – which limits financial transactions to short payback periods – proved unaffordable for the City. By promising to resolve the crisis within prohibitive legal and financial constraints, the City positioned itself firmly in the public mind as the authority responsible for generating the crisis and then failing to resolve it.

The City called for tenders – but when the constraints became clear, failed to adjudicate them. The mayor switched focus from desalination to aquifer abstraction. And the outcry grew.

Many people, especially business people, say: Why bother about the legal constraints? This is a crisis. When there is a crisis in business you have to take extraordinary measures to resolve it. You must do the same in government.” Then they usually illustrate their point by giving a business case study.

My reply is: In business you can do what you believe needs to be done, unless the law specifically prohibits it.

In government, by contrast, we can only do what the law specifically allows us to do.

The difference is substantial. In business, you are free to move in the direction you choose, until you hit a barrier. In government you cannot move at all unless you open the triple combination lock on your cage first. And when the code and keys are in the hands of your opponent, you can’t get out of the starting blocks. This is what it is like in government when you try to solve a problem that falls outside your constitutional mandate. That is why the City had no option but to try to source the budget by charging residents a drought levy (for using less water). No wonder there was such resistance!

We, in the province, wanted to bring court action to force national government to fulfil its mandate. But this option is not the “no-brainer” it first appears. The Intergovernmental Relations Framework Act requires a long and tortuous process of trying to reach solutions before a court challenge becomes possible. What’s more, the bankrupt national department had every possible motive to stretch out the process. Day Zero would have been upon us long before this.

There was another problem. We could not convince the mayor to start processes towards a court challenge. She said, with some justification, that Capetonians did not want to see politicians squabbling in a crisis. They wanted solutions.

So while the mayor accepted the responsibility for increasing bulk supply (that residents would pay for), the province continued with plans for a court challenge, now significantly complicated by the City’s tacit acceptance of the national minister’s position.

All the while, Day Zero was moving from the realms of possibility to probability. And that changed the rules of the game, because the power to manage and co-ordinate disasters lies firmly with provincial government. We have been meeting every week for a year already, in preparation for a situation (which we hoped would never materialise) where we would have to supplement the city’s Day Zero water distribution plan with a comprehensive delivery plan, and taken substantial steps to secure public institutions, such as hospitals and schools, and prepare an emergency procurement framework. All that is ready.

Whether, in addition to all of these measures, we initiate a court case against the national government to compel it to fulfil its mandate, depends largely on the outcome of a meeting that I have arranged with the national Minister of Water and Sanitation, Nomvula Mokonyane, on Wednesday.

But what about water augmentation?

Let me be plain: Despite regular assurances to the contrary, none of the City’s augmentation schemes, not even ground water abstraction, are going to be ready before the projected Day Zero date. We can only postpone the arrival of that date by saving water.

In addition, we must also go ahead with augmentation as a matter of urgency in the unthinkable event that the drought continues into its fourth year, which would be nothing short of catastrophic. The weather service is not sticking its neck out again. It has told us in words of one syllable: We cannot predict this winter’s rainfall. Climate change has rendered our prediction models virtually worthless.

The bitter truth, however, is that even in a state of disaster, we cannot go beyond the bounds of what the law allows. So a disputation of lawyers (yes, that is the collective noun) is answering the following questions for me: Does the disaster declaration enable the province to take over and quickly adjudicate the interminable supply chain processes the City is undertaking for new augmentation projects? Can we legally enter water off-take agreements with the private sector that extend for 25 years, despite the constraints imposed by the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF)? Are there processes by which we can reclaim the money disbursed? What will our position be if the rains return, and the additional infrastructure turns out to be superfluous to our needs, but we have to continue paying anyway? How do we expedite emergency procurement processes while remaining within the law?

I have asked that the answers are with me today (Monday). I dare not move without absolute clarity, because even in a state of disaster, if I put one toe across the line of what is legally allowed, my opponents will pounce, the process will be stalled, and nothing will happen. Hard as it may be to believe, and as conspiratorial as it may sound, there are too many people out there with a vested interest in seeing Cape Town run out of water, because they know it will mean Day Zero for the DA.

And there are other vested interests too, as people are now beginning to understand. The national Minister of Water and Sanitation has made her intention clear of keeping the private sector out of water augmentation projects, while offering to send in a state-owned enterprise, previously mired in scandal, to provide a small-scale desalinator (for which residents will pay). The scope for Eskom-style corruption involved in this process is obvious.

While this may explain the nature of the problem, it does not provide the clear solution for which people are looking. At present there is only one sure-fire way of avoiding Day Zero. This involves everyone using less than 50 litres per day, supported by the City’s “throttling” regime of lowering water pressure to reduce supply.

The only entirely reliable augmentation so far has come from farmers with private dams in the Palmiet River area, who have had plentiful rain, and are transferring enough water to the Steenbras Dam to push back Day Zero by 20 days. Substantial additional help has also come from those farmers, dependent on the Western Cape Water Supply System, who have agreed to cut back their water use dramatically. If there are any heroes in this sorry saga, it is these (oft-maligned) farmers.

This week we saw, for the first time, a growing number of residents understanding the seriousness of what we are facing. If we can use this crisis to change our “water culture” – create a whole new water economy to produce, augment, package, distribute, and recycle water – we would have taken a major leap forward. My question is: why do South Africans always seem to have to get to the brink of disaster before we do so? DM


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