Thanks to the lowest average water consumption since the early 2000s, Day Zero has been pushed back, meaning it is now possible, rather than likely. But this is no reason for complacency.
A week of positive progress in managing the drought crisis in Cape Town saw Day Zero retreat from being a “probability” to a “possibility”.
In practical terms this means that the date on which dams are expected to drop to 13.5% and people have to queue for water rations because suburban taps are turned off has moved back 25 days, from 16 April to 11 May.
That is not enough. The heavy winter rains (if they come at all) usually begin in mid-June. But any movement in the right direction is important now to reinforce the notion that we can defeat Day Zero.
The risk is that good news may make us complacent.
It is, therefore, important to understand why we made progress this week, and how easily this trend can be reversed. The positive news was the result of two developments:
The city’s daily water consumption came down to a seven-day average of 540-million litres – the lowest since the early 2000s (when there were 30% fewer residents in Cape Town). But we still need to get it down by almost 100-million additional litres a day in order to have a better chance of avoiding Day Zero.
Further good news is the boost we expect in the weeks ahead as a result of a generous donation by the Groenland Water Users’ Association of 60-million litres of water per day, from the Eikenhof Dam. This is a private dam constructed and financed by farmers in the Elgin/Grabouw area, where good rains have fallen. They have now offered to supplement Cape Town’s water supply substantially till mid-May;
And when this augmentation ends, additional volumes from desalination and aquifer abstraction are scheduled to begin. But none of these developments can prevent Day Zero unless we continue to intensify, not relax, our water-saving efforts.
Indeed, it is important to understand that we can only avoid day Zero if four conditions are met, and maintained:
Although the week ended with a greater degree of comfort than it began, on all four indicators, there was still one strongly negative signal: despite predictions of reasonably heavy rainfall by the end of the week, we only got a light drizzle. The impact of climate change saw the epicentre of the cold front veer away from the coastline, moving eastwards across the sea, and then north to bring rain to KwaZulu-Natal. If that pattern continues throughout this winter, as it did last year, the Western Cape is in trouble. That is why we must change our culture of water use.
The reason the Mayor, Patricia de Lille, pressed the proverbial panic button in mid-January, warning that Day Zero was all but inevitable, was because we had used far more water than we should have in the first quarter of the hydrological year. It made sense to issue that warning. The result was that hundreds of thousands of residents started taking water conservation seriously, and changed their water-use behaviour (but not without strong resistance to the inevitable).
While the mayor was battling the proverbial beast in the arena, the national water minister (who is actually responsible for bulk water supply), remained silent. When she finally spoke publicly during the past two weeks, Nomvula Mokonyane blamed the City for the crisis, and rubbished the concept of Day Zero, because, she said, it sounded “defeatist”. It had been invented, she suggested, as a “PR” concept, so that people could make money out of the water shortage. The minister’s speeches sounded as if they had been scripted by Bell Pottinger.
The minister’s public utterances overshadowed the positive outcomes of our meeting this week, in which we agreed on several key issues, including a communications strategy of “one message, many voices”. So it was unfortunate that the minister promptly went out to unilaterally and repeatedly contradict the narrative that had resulted in significant water-saving over the previous few weeks.
A simple question to the minister: If Day Zero is a figment of a PR consultant’s imagination, why does the Inter-ministerial Task Team intend to declare the drought a “national disaster” during the coming week?
There are two answers to this question:
In her speeches (last) week, it became clear that the minister is determined to pre-empt what she defines as the “commodification” of water. In other words, she wants to prevent a water economy developing to provide sustainable solutions to the crisis where the state has failed.
On several occasions, she and her supporters made it clear that they are determined to ensure that water generation, storage and reticulation remain under the control of the state – replicating the government’s determination to protect Eskom’s virtual monopoly in electricity supply and transfer. Despite the disastrously corrupt record of almost every State-owned Enterprise (including those responsible for water), and their failure to fulfil their public mandate, there is still a knee-jerk antipathy against entrepreneurs who turn problems into opportunities to create viable businesses that serve a public need.
The minister continued to paint them as opportunists seeking to profit out of a crisis, rather than innovative thinkers who are prepared to take a risk on a good idea (in competition with other good ideas) to solve public problems, strengthen the economy, and create jobs. It is frightening to see, again and again, how much the government’s economic analysis is still anchored in Marxist assumptions.
The rejection of the private sector is, of course, highly selective. Exemptions are allowed for companies with which ministers seem to have a special relationship. (In the case of water, the Public Protector has drawn our attention to companies such as LTE Civils and Khato Consulting).
So when one hears the government railing against “private sector opportunists” seeking to profit from the water crisis, the real meaning can be interpreted as: “We, in government, are determined to keep control, so that we can use the shell of State-owned Enterprises to appoint our own private consultants, with as many middlemen as possible, behind the smokescreen of BEE, to rake off as much profit as we can without any competition or oversight. Only government can act in the interests of the people. We call it transformation. And anyone who opposes or exposes it is racist.”
It is for this reason that the generous donation by farmers of vast quantities of water from the Eikenhof dam did not escape criticism either. They were at the receiving end of a tongue-lashing at the Parliamentary portfolio committee on Water and Sanitation, which included calls for nationalising the land on which private dams are situated, to expropriating the water inside the dams.
I doubt whether many members of the Portfolio Committee know much about the history of the Eikenhof Dam, which is playing a pivotal role in our efforts to avoid Day Zero. It was built and financed privately by a group of 150 farmers in the Grabouw and Elgin regions, who formed the Groenland Water Users Association to manage stable irrigation systems for the fruit farmers in the area (who create tens of thousands of jobs). They have maintained the dam in mint condition – and it is full — enabling them to transfer enough water, free, into the Western Cape Water Supply system to help postpone Day Zero by more than 20 days.
One would think that a simple “thank you” from the Parliamentary portfolio committee might not go amiss. Instead it was all threats, admonition and bluster.
However, I do understand the need to have a serious debate about the equitable allocation of water in specific catchment areas. It is perfectly possible, under our current laws, to do so in a way that co-operatively ensures a fair supply to all sectors, while allowing enterprising farmers to build dams so that the agricultural sector, as a whole, can benefit from the additional yield that these dams generate (where water would otherwise run into the sea). This entrepreneurial spirit is one of the reasons that Western Cape agriculture generally thrives, despite our dry climate.
Whether this water crisis turns out eventually to be an opportunity depends on how this fundamental ideological dissonance is resolved. The declaration of a national disaster, although necessary in the current circumstances, reduces the provincial government’s prospects of maximising future water resilience.
However, there was at least one positive impact of the minister entering the arena this week. The first was the arrival of the department’s deep-drilling equipment, dispatched from Limpopo, with the capacity of reaching depths of up to 300 metres in the search for water in places where it can easily be fed into the metropolitan grid.
Unfortunately, as inevitably happens, there has been a delay due to an impasse between two spheres of government over certain environmental restrictions. The problem is currently being resolved, but it just reinforces the fact that government interventions rarely run smoothly.
It was therefore unsurprising that most of the good news this week emanated from the private sector (over and above the Eikenhof dam).
South African Breweries, which is preparing to run production lines to bottle spring water instead of beer, confirmed that it had secured 300 distribution points in supermarkets and cafés to supplement the City’s 200 Points of Distribution.
And the mega logistics giant, DHL, offered its support in managing and co-ordinating the distribution network that Day Zero will require – on a scale that no South African city has ever faced before. After a very productive meeting this week, I felt secure, for the first time, that we would actually be able to manage such an eventuality – although not without severely disrupting our daily routines and our economy. We still need to do whatever is possible to prevent the need to do this.
Furthermore, the inter-governmental team working on drought-related safety and security planning is liaising closely with the private security sector, including the South African Intruder Detection Services Association (SAIDSA) and the Security Association of South Africa, on comprehensive contingency plans to safeguard schools in the event of Day Zero. We will continue ensuring water security to public schools so that education can continue. This requires preventing schools being targeted by avid water hunters.
Meanwhile on the City front, the off-site assembly of three small desalination plants (Monwabisi, Strandfontein and the Waterfront) continued to make good progress, despite the community protests at Monwabisi demanding more jobs for community members in this complex, hi-tech project.
Finally, the City advanced in the glacial procurement process by identifying a preferred bidder for its proposed mixed-treatment plant. The next step in the endless bureaucratic process will enable payment periods to stretch beyond the medium-term expenditure framework. And detailed negotiations have to be completed that will finally see the plant produce 80-million litres of fresh water per day, which we will need even if the drought is broken. It will take three good years of rain to fill our dams again.
In the meantime, the question we need to ask is this: can we use this crisis to grow a water economy in the same way our response to the energy crisis a few years ago helped kick-start what is now one of the fastest-growing green economies in the world?
The declaration of a national disaster, which centralises control in the national government, could be a setback to this objective, because of the obsolete ideology which underpins the approach to finding sustainable solutions for public problems.
But the fact that water is an indispensable resource provides a glimmer of hope. The department’s capacity is so limited, and the alleged corruption so entrenched, that there is no viable solution that excludes a pivotal role for the private sector.
And by this I do not mean just hi-tech, large-volume water purification and desalination systems. There are also many exciting, affordable, low-tech ideas emerging into the market that can be implemented by individual households and businesses alike, that can save significant amounts of water. We are busy compiling a water-suppliers’ database, and are actively seeking details of new ideas and inventions that are coming on stream to boost this nascent industry.
I would be happy to boost the public profile of these new entrepreneurs to ensure that, wherever possible, they can sustain their small businesses, so that Cape Town becomes as famous for its innovation and water resilience as it is for its natural beauty.
If we manage this crisis properly, we can become a model for the world to follow as the ravages of climate change inevitably cut a swath across the globe, changing the way people live and work with our precious natural resources. DM
Despite receiving a knighthood from the Queen, Bill Gates cannot use the title "Sir" due to his being American.