Drought debate heats up in Cape Town

01 March 2017 - 09:30 By TANYA FARBER
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People have been talking themselves dry in those parts of South Africa hardest hit by drought.

Much of the talk has been about what the authorities should and should not be doing, especially in Cape Town, where dam levels have become critical, with little more than a 100 days' supply estimated to be left.

But how much of what people propose is practicable, and how much would be a great solution if it were not for politics standing in the way?

For example, why isn't Cape Town desalinating the ocean?

For the public it seems like a no-brainer: we are surrounded by more saltwater than we know what to do with, so let's desalinate it.

  • Vaal Dam now full‚ say provincial water authoritiesThe Vaal Dam reached its full storage capacity on Monday with an inflow of 669.75 cubic metres a second‚ the provincial department of water and sanitation said.

But, in her State of the Province speech, Premier Helen Zille said: "This sounds like an obvious solution, but the real challenge is cost."

A desalination plant would cost a minimum of about R15-billion; operating it between R350-million and R1-billion a year.

Ulrike Rivett, a professor at the University of Cape Town, said the technology for desalination was a "major investment" with costs similar to those for building a power station.

She said the long-term effects of such a project were unknown but the public was seldom interested in "the gory details" of why a seemingly neat solution was not forthcoming.

  • Gauteng to lift water curbs as Western Cape is still under drought lashWhile the Western Cape has about 124 days of water left‚ Gauteng will lift its water restrictions on Monday.

She said it would be unconscionable "if Cape Town built technology for desalination before sorting out the toilets crisis in Khayelitsha".

Councillor Xanthea Limberg, the Cape Town mayoral committee member for water, said that the enormous costs associated with desalination would "have to be recovered by the tariff and would have significant implications for the cost of water".

Did the city plan badly for dealing with a drought?

Social media users have criticised the City of Cape Town for inadequte planning and ending up with a crisis.

UCT environmental scientist Kevin Winter said the drought had caught many people off-guard - few had expected a third year of low rainfall.

But "the signs were there in October that level-three restrictions on water use were needed".

  • Named and shamed: The streets where Cape Town is cracking down on water guzzlersThirty-six fines were issued this week to consumers who contravened water restrictions in Cape Town.

"I understand that the city has to balance political, social and economic decisions, but information has been filtering down to ratepayers far too slowly," he said.

Winter said that the city's "antiquated billing system" did not allow ratepayers to monitor water consumption as they did electricity .

He said the city council had an action plan that could be of huge benefit but implementation of some if its aspects should have been accelerated, such as raising dam walls.

In response to criticism of poor planning, city councillor Limberg said: "We cannot set aside funds for a drought that might or might not happen. Infrastructure investment is based on long-term projections of demand."

She said "best international practice" was to introduce successive levels of restrictions on the use of water.

  • Cape's water-saving ideas dry upOnly 499 notices have been issued to water guzzlers since the City of Cape Town implemented water restrictions in December.

Winter recognised the "complexity" of managing water and said it was easy for the public to "judge from the outside".

He said the Cape Town city council was also hamstrung by being locked into a five-year planning process.

"They are unable to plan 20 years ahead for something sustainable because the plans are only laid out for five years and then administrations change," he said.

Does the public know what the city is doing?

According to UCT's Rivett, it was the city's inability to communicate its planning that frustrated the public.

She said calls for the public to attend meetings about planning drought measures were "published as tiny little ads in small and obscure newspapers" and the city then got a bad press because nobody knew what it was doing.

William Bird, of Media Monitoring Africa, said: "People often don't understand how the government works, so when a crisis like the drought happens misleading information is used as a stick with which to beat the people in charge".

He said that often the appropriate media were not used.

"Social media is where people express opinion but the government doesn't use social media effectively to relay basic information."

What about run-off water?

Last year the film Place of Sweet Waters was circulated on social media.

Its maker, Sven Harding, commented that "Cape Town is in the middle of its worst drought in two decades but millions of litres of naturally occurring fresh water run under the city's streets every day to be dumped straight into the sea."

He described run-off water as a "criminally neglected but desperately needed resource".

The perception that run-off water is not properly exploited in Cape Town keeps rearing its head on social media.

According to Limberg: "The city has just concluded a study on how this water could be used more extensively."

She said the council was "preparing a licence application for further use of this water", and that run-off water would be used for "the irrigation of sports fields, parks and other large-scale gardens".

Run-off water is being used at the Cape Town Stadium and surrounding area, for street-cleaning, and to irrigate parts of the Company's Garden.

"The yield from these springs will not offset the effects of the drought but the planned usage will take some pressure off the city's potable water reserves," Limberg said.

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