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Thirsty Western Cape government digs in for day zero

Drought pushes towns, cities, farmers to brink of disaster

14 January 2018 - 00:02 By BOBBY JORDAN

The Western Cape government has begun drilling emergency boreholes to provide groundwater to government buildings in case taps run dry in the drought-stricken province.
To date 27 key facilities - including hospitals, clinics and department head offices - have secured an emergency supply. Phase two of the drilling programme, which started this week, coincides with news that the City of Cape Town is fewer than 100 days away from "day zero" when taps run dry.
Public works spokesman Siphesihle Dube said emergency drilling was taking place at sites throughout the province but most were in Cape Town, where the two main supply dams have dipped below 20% full.Cape Town businesses are being advised to prepare for "day zero" - now predicted to be April 22 - despite pledges from mayor Patricia de Lille that "a well-run city does not run out of water".
Over half of businesses surveyed late last year by the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the water crisis threatened their survival, and 23% said it had prompted them to halt or postpone new investments. Nearly all said the city council had not done enough to avert the crisis.
The public outcry over dwindling supplies has prompted a heated blame game, notably between government officials and farmers.
City officials are increasingly under fire on social media for alleged mismanagement, with many residents saying their emergency response came too late.
However, De Lille and premier Helen Zille have said climate change is the major cause of the crisis.
The city has also begun tracking agricultural usage of potable water, which appears to be above planned levels. Farming consumes 51% of water from major dams, according to city figures.Concerns about unregulated irrigation in rural areas have also prompted intervention from the Department of Water and Sanitation, which has sent a 12-member team of "blue scorpions" to the province to identify water cheats.
Deputy director-general Trevor Balzer said the team would use "whatever means necessary" - including satellites and drones - to ensure compliance with restrictions. He said some irrigation boards were using more than their allotted share.
In terms of a notice published on Friday in the Government Gazette, the department can stop releasing water from dams to user associations that have used up their quotas.
The department has also clamped down on noncompliant farmer irrigation boards by limiting the volume of groundwater extraction in some areas.
But farmers criticise the department for failing to upgrade or expand infrastructure despite numerous warnings about the threat to agricultural production.
"We are sitting with old infrastructure," said Johan Louw, chairman of the Lower Olifants River Water Users Association, which manages water from the Clanwilliam Dam. He said a project to raise the wall of the dam, increasing its capacity, had been stalled for three years. "The big problem is irrigation. We are completely dependent on that dam," Louw said.
Farmers in the area are restricted to 14% of their normal water use, resulting in many having to remove vineyards or let them die.
"We are estimating a crop reduction of between 40% and 70%," said Vredendal grape farmer Gideon van Zyl. "We've never had it like this before, not in my life."How am I going to survive this year? If they had expanded the dam three years ago like they should have done then we would not have this crisis."
Balzer acknowledged infrastructure problems but denied they had contributed to the crisis.
This week the provincial government also detailed emergency assistance for farmers, who say the drought is unprecedented. Vredendal received only 52mm of rain last year, when it normally gets between 150mm and 220mm.
Over R100-million of drought relief - R40-million from the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs and R67-million from the provincial agriculture department - has helped soften the impact. Five district municipal areas in the province - Cape Winelands, West Coast, Overberg, Central Karoo, and Eden - had been declared drought disaster areas...

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