Scientist predicts “a total system crash in March 2018” for Cape Town’s water supply

26 October 2017

The slow onset crisis unfolding in South Africa is – at least in my professional opinion – about to enter a new phase. Gauteng came within a week of running out of water last year, saved only by a major rainfall event that fell literally deep into the eleventh hour. Many think that the drought has gone away, so they no longer worry. Cape Town is now where Gauteng was over a year ago. Unless it rains in the next 4 months, then the water supply will literally collapse by March 2018.

This is very serious, so I have decided to write this piece in a sincere effort to galvanize constructive debate in the public interest.

The dataset attached shows dam levels since November 2016. Remember that the Western Cape is a winter rainfall area, so we are now out of the normal rainfall season entering the dry season with dams less than 30% full. But this only tells part of the story. The second graph shows the combined total of all dams in the Cape Town metro area since 2014 as the blue line, with useable water as the red line. Note the following:

1) Distinct seasonal cyclicity as rain falls in the winter followed by a dry summer.

2) Useable water is always less than dam levels, because of losses and other factors.

3) Each peak since 2014 has been lower than the previous peak, with a near linear downwards trend over the last three years.

4) Each trough follows a similar trend, being lower than the previous cycle.

5) The data stops in October 2017 (present date) on a high that is lower than all previous highs in this dataset, so extrapolating historic data into the future, we see a total system crash in March 2018.

This is dire. In fact, this will be the first case of total system failure in thecountry. Without water commerce is not possible. Shopping centres cannot operate if they cannot flush toilets. Banks cannot have staff on the premises if they cannot use the toilet. Schools cannot operate if children are unable to remain hydrated and flush toilets (here the proxy is a school in Port Shepstone that was forced to send pupils home for the same reason). Hotels cannot provide for guests so the tourism industry fails. Hospitals cannot function so patients need to be transported elsewhere (here the most accurate proxy indicator is the Murchison Hospital near Port Shepstone where water supplies have failed). If a high-rise building should start to burn, then there is insufficient water to extinguish the flames (here the proxy is Braamfontein a year ago).

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The Cape Town water crisis: who knew?

17 October 2017

Unless some seriously impressive rains materialise in the very near future, Cape Town is facing a socio-economic crisis of note when the water runs out.  By comparison, the ‘hardships’ of the Eskom load-shedding times will pale into insignificance as millions of residents queue for their water ration.  City officials assure us that all is under control – but many of us are unconvinced.

Water ‘resilience’ has become a new buzzword, although melding ‘resilience’ with the emergency situation that the region finds itself in is a tad odd.  But there are lots of knee-jerk reactions in the mix and placating the public is obviously a priority.  Point of fact is, however, that the need for desalination in Cape Town by around the year 2000 was foreseen 47 years ago.

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The Cape Town drought: are more supply problems just around the corner?

5 October 2017

Bloom of toxic cyanobacteria in Theewaterskloof Dam(Photo: Bill Harding, 1991)

Bloom of toxic cyanobacteria in Theewaterskloof Dam(Photo: Bill Harding, 1991)

Monitoring for blue-green algae in times of drought – a need for increased vigilance:

The continuing and very troubling, ok downright scary is what it is, drought in the Western Cape should be on the minds of all those affected.  A major metropolitan area, plus numerous municipalities, are faced with the prospect of having to provide water from tankers at street corners in the not too distant future.  Millions of people will face considerable hardship, all the while having to continue to meet their daily obligations, be it family, work, education and so on.  Many work opportunities will be lost, at least temporarily.  The shortage of water problem could also, and rapidly, become a whole lot worse should what is left of the water become undrinkable.  Not everyone can afford bottled water. Read more »

Deja vu… drought, wastewater re-use and the abandoned Athlone Power Station precinct

20 June 2017

Athlone’s towers have fallen down

[This post originally appeared in Droplets in January 2011…]

I understand that the huge building that was the Athlone Power Station is being considered for a museum of some sort?  The odds are probably quite good that it will be developed into a shopping mall.

The site is immediately opposite the long-overloaded Athlone wastewater treatment works – a works that has no space to expand to meet increasing demands.  When the cooling towers came down, I suggested (to the City) that it would be a good idea to fill the building with reverse osmosis water purification modules and treat the otherwise ghastly final effluent (see how the City responded here) to a useable, and saleable, quality (RO can achieve potable quality).  This, to my mind, would be a logical and strategic use of space.  There is already a pipeline from the works underneath the N2, as the effluent was used as cooling water for the towers.

The concept of converting waste, in this case wastewater effluent, into an asset (irrigation, drinking or industrial water) is not taking root in South Africa – but it needs to!  This approach would also allow recovery of the appropriately-named Black River from its present role as a wastewater drain.”

I have no doubt that my original idea is likely to be fraught with technical and perhaps economic challenges, but none so challenging as having no water at all!  The City subsequently (in July 2011) announced that the quality of Athlone effluent had improved substantially between 1998 and 2011 – a claim that I cannot confirm or deny as I have not seen any empirical proof thereof – but it does suggest that the proposed water quality treatment or pre-treatment would now be easier than I previously envisaged.

The City of Cape Town produces a lot of wastewater effluent every day – polluting the rivers and the marine environment on a continuous basis.  And, yes, the production of wastewater (and the disposal thereof) is an inevitable fact associated with human life and especially with large metropolitan areas.  Equally true is that the polluting impact of this wastewater can be  attenuated at or near source (= at or near the wastewater treatment works) into a product that is substantially less harmful to the environment, as well as being a revenue-earning commodity.

At the very least, the empty halls of the Athlone Power Station still provide a site for a decent pilot study.

 

Thames Water ordered to pay record £20 million for river pollution

31 March 2017

Thames Water Utilities Ltd sentenced in the largest freshwater pollution case ever taken by the Environment Agency

(Press Release First published:22 March 2017).

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Sewage “spilling continuously” into Butterworth river (South Africa)

31 March 2017

Residents and livestock suffer while year-old leak is unfixed

(Droplets comment: readers of this sad story might be interested in the one that follows it…)

 

Photo of bridge and dirty river
Sewage has been leaking into the Gcuwa River near Butterworth for more than a year. Photo: Mbulelo Sisulu

Sewage has been leaking into the Gcuwa River near Butterworth for more than a year, after damage to the pump mechanism caused by illegal electricity connections.

Amathole District Municipality spokesperson Siyabulela Makunga confirmed that two sewage pump stations in Butterworth were “spilling continuously” into the river.

According to Makunga “the community have connected illegally to the incoming electricity supply, damaging the cables and pumps”. Eskom had agreed to move the transformer at one of the pump stations, but had not done so.

But Eastern Cape Eskom spokesperson Ntombekhaya Mafumbatha said she did not have evidence that the municipality had reported the problem. “Leaking sewage is urgent and needs to be fixed very quickly because it affects many things,” she said.

The leakage started at the beginning of 2016. Residents say the matter was reported to the councillor, but nothing was done.

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SA’s Drinking Water Reservoirs are full of shit. Literally

30 September 2016

(Guest post by Graham Sell – republished with permission – emphasis added)

It was only when I started looking into the controversial award of a Water Use Licence (WUL) to Metsimaholo Municipality (enabling them to pump treated and partially-treated effluent from their Refengkgotso sewerage works into the Vaal Dam at Deneysville) that I realised how deeply in the pooh we are across the whole country – both literally as well as metaphorically.

Before getting back to the specifics of the Refengkgotso pipeline, take a look at the compliance table below to see how your province fares in the Green Drop stakes. The Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation (DWS) Green Drop awards program sets standards for processing raw sewage into an acceptable state for reintroduction into the environment.  As a cornerstone of the program, municipalities are required to regularly test the effluent from their waste water treatment plants to ensure that it complies with prescribed microbiological, chemical, and physical standards.

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Convention on monitoring of ship ballast water nears ratification – bbe technology ready

20 May 2016

International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments (BWM)

Invasive aquatic species present a major threat to the marine ecosystems, and shipping has been identified as a major pathway for introducing species to new environments. The problem increased as trade and traffic volume expanded over the last few decades, and in particular with the introduction of steel hulls, allowing vessels to use water instead of solid materials as ballast. The effects of the introduction of new species have in many areas of the world been devastating. Quantitative data show the rate of bio-invasions is continuing to increase at an alarming rate. As the volumes of seaborne trade continue overall to increase, the problem may not yet have reached its peak.

However, the Ballast Water Management Convention, adopted in 2004, aims to prevent the spread of harmful aquatic organisms  from one region to another, by establishing standards and procedures for the management and control of ships’ ballast water and sediments

Under the Convention, all ships in international traffic are required to manage their ballast water and sediments to a certain standard, according to a ship-specific ballast water management plan. All ships will also have to carry a ballast water record book and an international ballast water management certificate. The ballast water management standards will be phased in over a period of time. As an intermediate solution, ships should exchange ballast water mid-ocean. However, eventually most ships will need to install an on-board ballast water treatment system.
bbe’s BWM technology at the forefront of monitoring solutions

In a recent test of BWM technologies, bbe’s “10 cells” proved to be the world leader: Read more »

A South African election promise that I would like to hear, but probably won’t

15 May 2016

I realise that quite some time back I missed the memo when it was announced that STOP signs were henceforth to be treated as a YIELD.  What I fail to grasp is why so many South Africans consider it clever or perhaps ‘cool’ to deliberately disobey this simplest and possibly most important rule of the road, STOP.  I understand that the present phenomenon is described by some or other psychological theory – something to do with sheep and incalculable stupidity I would imagine…

In the area where we live there are, inter alia, two occasions when anyone aware of these new ‘road rules’ needs to be especially vigilant.  The first is on Sundays when church congregations flee their sixty minutes of weekly piety.  They manner in which they ignore the STOP signs in their rush to get away is quite beyond belief – but I have to assume that it is due to a need to get out there and spread the word of God. On more reasoned and cynical consideration, however, I would hazard a guess that it’s rather a need to get out there and spread the lunchtime barbecue rolls.  Clearly modern religious practice has lost sight of the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” clause?   In many countries of the world, not stopping at a STOP sign is a ‘lock up and go’ offence – the authorities lock you up and go off to catch another moron equally lacking in compassion for his or her fellow man.  Do this in Norway and you could end up down the passage from Anders Breivik.

The second danger period occurs shortly after schools close, especially the junior variety. I have lost count of the number of times that a paragon of motherly virtue, in her late-model ‘mommy-wagon’, flies through an intersection with hardly a pause.  Such inexplicable idiocy, and lack of any semblance of social ethics, is often compounded by the driver being on her mobile phone and/or with unrestrained small children in the vehicle.  On a couple of occasions I attempted drawing attention (let’s call it ‘constructive criticism’) to the fact that a collision was narrowly avoided, by hooting at said ‘mother’.  I don’t do this anymore – as the sound of hooting seems to precipitate some form of finger cramp, resulting in the driver having no hands on the wheel – the phone in one and cramp in the other (“Mommy, what does that sign you are making mean…?”).

Here’s an example:  CFM 32058 making a high speed run through the 3-way Stop intersection at Mountain and Gordon Roads, Somerset West.  She then makes off at very high speed – well over the urban limit – and disappears momentarily from sight, only to get held up at the next intersection… (just for the record she was not on her way to the hospital, she ducked away into Bizweni).

The air in South Africa is currently permeated with recently dusted off and warmed up election manifesto ‘promises’.  One I would like to hear would focus on the aforementioned problem – to the extent that it would advocate a change in the law that made not stopping a ‘suspension of drivers license for six months minimum’ offence.  Command and control is what is needed here, there is no leeway for waiting for society to heal itself.

 

 

 

So little water, so much poor management of it

17 November 2015

South Africa needs an infrastructure revolution and a change in values if it is to avoid being left high and dry, writes Mmusi Maimane

THEY say countries should never waste a crisis. We need to see South Africa’s drought and water shortages as such an opportunity.

Our water system has reached a point where it could limit economic growth and development, which will therefore affect our social wellbeing and stability. This applies to both the quantity and quality of water available to us. Right now, we need to urgently and strategically manage our transition from a demand-driven to a supply-constrained economy.

With respect to quantity, we are experiencing a rapid increase in demand coupled with a steady decrease in supply. Population growth, immigration and changing consumption habits are pushing up demand. Supply is falling due to crumbling, poorly managed infrastructure aggravated by a shortage of engineers; an El Niño event; and a climate change trend making South Africa a hotter, drier country. This constitutes a looming crisis, despite Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane’s protestations to the contrary.

To make matters worse, the quality of water is also declining. Our municipal waste-water system, which treats and recycles used water, is under extreme pressure, with as many as 90% of waste-water treatment works dysfunctional. Urban and industrial effluent runs into our rivers, while acid mine drainage and the large amounts of hazardous waste that we are unable to deal with are further contributors to this problem.

It is generally agreed that at least a third but possibly up to two-thirds of our national stored water resources (in dams and watercourses) is eutrophic, meaning that it has dangerously elevated levels of nutrients that cause blue-green algae to flourish. This, in turn, produces chemicals toxic to our health. So pollution and waterborne diseases are also risking our supply.

The political and social risks of this deteriorating situation should be clear. Economic growth — and thus job creation — will be increasingly limited, leading to social instability. This will be exacerbated by rising food prices due to our increasing inability to withstand periodic droughts; our re-allocation of water from agriculture in an attempt to prevent job losses in more labour-absorbing sectors of our economy; and the general desiccation of our land due to overuse and poor farming practices.

Water insecurity will also drive energy insecurity, since energy production relies on water. Of course, water can be “imported” by means of food and energy imports that used water in their production cycle, but that option is becoming less likely because of our balance-of-payments deficit, a situation aggravated by our government’s penchant for presidential jets and the like.

As ever, the poor (particularly women and children, to whom it generally falls to collect water for cooking and washing) will suffer disproportionately — and are least able to adapt, move, or buy their way out of the problem. They are also afflicted by the least competent municipalities.

This is the bad news.

The good news is that a lot can be done to reverse this dismal state of affairs, avert the looming disaster and put South Africa back on the road to water security. Says water expert Professor Anthony Turton: “The transition can be managed, but it will require a carefully formulated strategy, driven by a policy that is based on the best available science, held together by sound political leadership embedded in robust institutions.”

Our challenge is to significantly boost water supplies, massively improve efficiency of use and increase our resilience to drought — all while ending the injustices of water provision in the past and ensuring the integrity of our ecology.

There is massive waste and inefficiency in our water systems. Wastage is due to poorly maintained infrastructure, with definitely at least a third but quite possibly up to two-thirds of all reticulated water being lost to failing infrastructure and theft. This means there is massive scope to boost our supply, but we need to channel resources — our best engineering talent and funds — to reverse the infrastructure decline.

This waste is compounded by the inefficient use of water by various sectors. We need to identify the sectors with the most potential for improvement. Here, the agricultural sector offers the greatest gains, because it uses 63% of our water for irrigation. Land management on farms has a major impact on water availability and quality. Soil erosion, for example, changes the flow of our rivers and reduces the storage capacity of our dams, resulting in the need for expensive water filtration and treatment systems. Poorly applied fertiliser and pesticides run off into rivers, polluting our water and killing aquatic life. Clearing alien vegetation is also a cost-effective, job-creating way to increase water supply on farms, because invasive plants use more than twice the water of indigenous vegetation.

Essentially, we need not only an infrastructure revolution, but also one of values. We need to recognise that our economy — and, ultimately, our wellbeing — are reliant on our national ecology, and start to treat our natural environment with the respect and care it deserves. Properly cared for and managed, our wetlands, rivers and organic-rich soil purify our water and provide resilience in times of drought. We need to restore, respect and protect our ecosystems. This requires strong leadership, which we’re not seeing right now.

Similarly, there is vast scope within our manufacturing processes and energy production for water saving, not only through efficiency gains, but through fundamentally changing the way we produce, consume and live. Once again, this begins with good governance.

As in so many other areas of state management, we know what needs to be done, but are falling short on implementation. As Mokonyane said in an interview with Chris Barron last weekend: “If you ask me, we need more bodies with the knowledge and capability, we need better management and better planning. Having the right people in the right place with the ability to do the job.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. All I would add is: “And with the government clearly having failed to rise to this challenge, it is time for a change of leadership, before we are left high and dry.”

•Maimane is the DA leader

(This article first appeared in the Sunday Times, 15 November 2015, page 18.  Republished with permission of the DA and the Sunday Times).