Cape boreholes will 'permanently harm' ecosystem

04 March 2018 - 00:00 By TANYA FARBER

In the Day Zero panic, the City of Cape Town is drilling for water in areas that critics say will yield little, threaten the future supply and devastate ecosystems.
A group of scientists led by ecologist Jasper Slingsby sounded the alarm early last month, approaching the city and the Western Cape environment department. But to date, said Slingsby, they had not had a response and fresh holes were drilled daily.
Slingsby, a member of the South African Environmental Observation Network, said: "Extracting water from the aquifer will make no difference to Day Zero this year but will likely degrade the catchment area and its ability to supply us with water in future."The city is drilling at Steenbras Nature Reserve, while Stellenbosch municipality is digging ditches in wetlands at Wemmershoek, home to several plant species that exist nowhere else.
A total of 222 boreholes are planned, 214 of them within threatened ecosystems that play a role in bulk water supply systems, say the scientists.
Adam West, a biological scientist at the University of Cape Town, warned that "if we keep going down this road, the potential for collapse becomes more severe".
Pumping the aquifer would give each Capetonian only one half-flush of a toilet a day at a cost of R200-million, he said.
Xanthea Limberg, mayoral committee member for water, said the risk of drilling had to be balanced against "serious social, economic, environmental and reputational risks associated with running out of water".
Cape Town and other municipalities are exempt from having to conduct environmental impact assessments before drilling, but West said this did not mean they could ignore the National Environmental Management Act.Documents and photographs seen by the Sunday Times show evidence of mass clearance of endangered plant life before drilling. In one instance, the drill got stuck and the contractors simply moved to another spot.
"Three species have been wiped out in the last month, and when the rains come back the plants won't. They are gone forever," said West. "If you stuck a pin into any area on the face of the earth that would be most sensitive to the drilling ... it would probably be right there where they are doing it."
Cape Nature, tasked with protecting natural areas, finds itself on a tightrope. Executive director of biodiversity support Ernst Baard said: "We are monitoring and documenting the issues on the ground to report to the competent authority for action."
West said an overemphasis on "a civil engineering solution" to the water crisis was misguided. Clearing alien vegetation would create a much higher flow into dams but it had been hampered by a lack of funds and co-ordination.
Slingsby said borehole drilling lowered the water table and encouraged the growth of disturbance-loving alien plants which reduced run-off into dams.
James-Brent Styan, spokesman for the provincial environment department, said it was ensuring "sound environmental practices were being adhered to".
Limberg said the city was conducting "careful environmental screening" which might result in some boreholes being drilled in different places or not being drilled at all.
But West said that once a borehole had been drilled, the damage was done. Plans to relocate rare species ignored the basics of how natural systems worked, he said...

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