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From the Inside: Reliable data a key weapon in overcoming our energy and water challenges

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

Let’s hope in future that correct data will be available and used more often to deal with our challenges before they become crises.


Youth, they say, is wasted on the young. You have all the time and energy in the world, but none of the experience to make the best use of it.

It’s the converse for politicians, like me, reaching the end of their second term. You have, at last, accumulated the experience you need to do a proper job, but not enough time to make full use of it.

That said, the advantages of term limits almost always outweigh their disadvantages.

Looking back, I now realise how (until relatively recently) I under-estimated the importance of reliable data to measure the right things to assess the impact of policy. I mistakenly thought that a good plan and a strong implementation strategy would automatically result in positive outcomes.

I was wrong. If you don’t measure the right things, you cannot identify whether you are on track, nor when things go wrong, nor even what is going wrong. This means you usually cannot fix it, until it is much too late. And then you still risk applying the wrong remedy.

What’s more, even when you can measure the right things, the data often reveal a symptom, not the root cause of the problem.

One of the advantages of technology applications in government is that they unlock an enormous amount of data which, if analysed correctly, provides invaluable management information. If properly scrutinised, this alerts us to the first symptoms of a problem, enabling further investigation and targeted solutions.

Last week I wrote about this in relation to e-learning. We have put an enormous effort into identifying and collecting accurate predictive data across selected indicators, and it is on this basis that my colleagues select schools for me to visit, in order to “drill down” and find out exactly why red lights are flashing. The results have been fascinating, and empowering.

This week though, as we approach the crucial month of May, I write about a different application of data: historical weather statistics, current rainfall records and future predictions.

The data tell me that May 2017 was the turning point (for the worse) in our developing water crisis, because we only got 8% of the long-term average rainfall for the month. By the time the rains came in June, it was too late and too little to recover.

The truth is that last year we were working off the wrong data. We accepted the South African Weather Service’s (SAWS’s) prediction of a “wetter-than-normal” winter, illustrated by their colourful predictive weather map, in shades of darkening greens and blues, indicating various degrees of heavy rainfall. The La Niña effect, I was confidently told, had replaced El Niño. The drought would be broken.

What I did not know back then was that climate change had substantially reduced the reliability of SAWS’s predictive modelling. As it turned out, we had the driest May on record, and were less prepared for the resultant crisis than we otherwise might have been.

This year, SAWS has predicted, again, that we are in for a wetter-than-normal winter. But, in a recent meeting, they stressed that we should not rely on this prediction. I was grateful for their honesty and understand that it is not their fault. Nevertheless, the lack of accurate predictive rainfall data has profound implications for national governments, worldwide.

So, why, in South Africa, is that a provincial or local government problem? Under our Constitution, national government is responsible for securing bulk water supply, including augmentation.

Answering this question reveals another crucial data hole. This time in 2017 we were unaware of the extent to which corruption and mismanagement had bankrupted the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), which would under normal circumstances have been responsible for emergency water augmentation. I only realised the full extent of the crisis when the South African Water Caucus released a damning report in November 2017, chronicling the department’s dysfunction. The Parliamentary portfolio committee meetings earlier this year also revealed the magnitude of the DWS calamity. Against stiff competition, the department received the worst audit report in government.

Had we had accurate data from the start, we would have realised that we were not only flying blind, but alone.

The City of Cape Town, backed by the provincial government, had to step into the breach. Undertaking a crash course in water crisis management, we learnt a lot from Australia, especially Adelaide, also situated on a peninsula at almost the same latitude as Cape Town. In this city, climate change also played havoc with predictive modelling, resulting in the investment of billions in desalination projects, only to have the rains return. They then found themselves paying a fortune for water they did not need.

Our water plan, therefore, has had to rely on the experience of others, and a range of assumptions, rather than sound, predictive data. Cape Town’s plan is to augment the city’s water supply by approximately 300-million litres a day by 2020. More than half of this amount will come from re-use and aquifer abstraction; the balance from desalination. It will cost a lot. But will it be enough, given another crucial variable – the extent of urbanisation and population growth? No one can honestly say for sure. There are several variables, of which the most important is winter rainfall.

Assumptions, as the basis for a strategy, are always stomach-churning in government, which is why I am so fixated on the data as it unfolds in real time.

So far this year, every month’s rainfall has been below the long-term monthly average (although November 2017, the start of the hydrological year, looked quite promising). Since then, rainfall, while not as low as last year, has not nearly been as good as the tentative predictions promised. And far below what we need to break the drought.

January 2018 brought just over half the long-term average rainfall of 10 mm.

February was fractionally below the long-term average of 9 mm.

And March brought 75% of the long-term average of 12.4 mm.

Halfway through April, things were looking particularly bleak. We had only had 3.8 mm against a long-term average of 40 mm – which was even less than the same time in 2017. Fortunately, on 18 April we had good showers (though less than the predicted 22 mm). One of the highest measurements (15 mm) came from the Jonkershoek catchment area.

And today (April 23) I hold my breath in anticipation of the predicted 10 mm. If it materialises, we will be much closer to the long-term average of 40 mm for April.

But we need far more than average rainfall to recharge our dams.

The six major supply dams comprising Cape Town’s Water Supply System (which also feed the West Coast) are at present on average 19% full. Even if we retain the current draconian 6B water restrictions (50 litres per person per day), the dams will have to at least recover to between 40%-50% in order to avoid drastic water rationing (what was dubbed, in the past, Day Zero) during the summer of 2019.

Even as augmentation comes on stream, scheduled to reach over 50-million litres per day by September, the current restrictions will have to remain.

We cannot afford to lift them until our dams are, on average, at least 60% full. And this would require record-breaking rainfall this winter. The initial indicators do not suggest this will materialise – although with climate change anything is possible. The situation will be fully assessed at the end of the hydrological year in late October.

But, even as we focus on the water crisis, the energy data are now warning us that we may be heading for a new era of load shedding.

That is probably the reason why, early in April, the new Energy Minister, Jeff Radebe, signed power purchase agreements with 27 renewable energy companies.

The data told us that, unless government allows a far greater role for the private sector in energy generation, the mess bequeathed by Eskom cannot be fixed in time to prevent another round of electricity blackouts.

Corruption in the utility has resulted in higher prices for unusable or sub-standard coal purchased from the Gupta network, and enriching various middlemen behind the fig-leaf of inflated BEE targets.

To add to the crisis, three coal-fired power stations (Hendrina, Arnot and Camden in Mpumalanga) are reaching the end of their productive life and will be decommissioned in two years’ time.

The greatest irony is that, while Eskom is desperate to sell more electricity to balance its budget, corruption and mismanagement have destroyed its capacity to meet the projected demand. The only option is to turn to the private sector, harnessing green energy sources, to prevent another crisis. The good news is that this will attract billions of rand in investment and potentially create thousands of jobs.

It is an enormously positive sign that Minister Radebe is taking the available data seriously and opening the door much wider for private sector participation in energy generation.

Corrupt governments usually suppress accurate data because the hard facts reveal too much.

Let’s hope this change signals that, in future, the correct data will be used more often to deal with our challenges before they become crises. This will, among other things, necessitate being brutally honest about the fact that the ANC’s version of BBBEE (which should accurately be known as bribe-based black elite enrichment) was either a major contributing or aggravating factor in both the water and the electricity crises.

What we need is genuinely broad-based empowerment, which drives growth, skills and jobs.

If President Ramaphosa looks honestly at the data – from unemployment to economic growth rates and corruption – this conclusion will be inescapable. If he is prepared to take commensurate action, we will truly be able to herald a “new dawn”. DM


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