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.

Out of a suite of possible solutions, some grandiose, possibly environmentally devastating and quite unlikely given the time that would be needed to bring them to full effect, desalination is the technology we are hearing about the most as being Cape Town’s saviour.  Despite the fact that desalination is well understood and the environmental impacts largely predictable, based on a wealth of extant knowledge, the City appears to be complicating the process as much as it can.  While it clearly and urgently needs a fleet of package desalination units scattered along the coastline, it has attached hundreds of pages of requirements to its emergency planning.

The desalination industry is clearly irritated, with two of the biggest names in this field openly criticising the City for taking so long.  These big companies know just how long it takes to get these processes established and operating – it’s a lot more complex than buying a jug water filter on-line.  Other smaller suppliers are bogged down with costing environmental approval processes which, given the emergency nature of the situation, conflict with the Minister of Water Affairs having declared the Richards Bay desalination facility an Emergency Government Waterworks, as such absolved of the need for an environmental impact assessment process (Government Gazette 40598, notice 99, 6 February 2017).  It is not clear if the City has applied for similar relief?  Multiple tenders are being called for, as opposed to common sense indicating the facilitation of a colloquium joint venture of suppliers, all mandated through a single assessment protocol.   Companies would be asked to offer a portion of the total volume required, and be subject to overarching environmental due diligence.  This would save the ratepayers a LOT of money and be far easier to implement in the immediate term.

Looking back, if we examine the antecedent predictions about Cape Town’s water supply and the need for desalination in the future, we need look no further than the 1970 Government Commission of Enquiry into Water Matters.  This document was one of those far-sighted, predictive assessments that characterised the planning division of the Department of Water Affairs  between the mid-1950s to around the end of the 1970s.  It followed on the seminal 1965 US White House report – singularly the most comprehensive planning assessment ever produced – entitled Restoring the quality of our environment.  The latter document is best known for its heralding of climate change – which caused Lyndon B Johnson to bury it in a dark cupboard.

Anywho, the South African Commission of Enquiry accurately predicted that Cape Town would, by the year 2000, need 1246 million litres of water per day – although this was inclusive of 20% made up by the reuse of effluents.  This number equates closely with the extant peak water production figures for the City before the restrictions cut in (see summer of of 2015 in graph following).

Cape Towns potable water production, with maxima equivalent to those predicted in 1970.

Cape Towns potable water production, with a maximum in 2015 equivalent to that predicted in 1970.

The Commission regarded re-use as vitally important, given the contemporary success of the Windhoek wastewater reclamation plant – developed by the CSIR – declaring it feasible to recover 50% of the freshwater demand from effluents – at a cost cheaper than the development of new resources.  Sadly that initiative was not pursued and, not too long after, South Africa lost to the USA the person who has since become the world’s most reknowned wastewater treatment engineer, James Barnard, developer of the patented BarDenPho sewage treatment process (but that’s another story of avoiding the need for environmental resilience).

The Commission concluded that “[d]esalination of sea water to augment fresh water supplies to development nodes along the south and west coasts of the Republic will become indispensable with the next two to three decades [1990-2000] if urban and industrial development is to continue“.

With respect to Cape Town in particular, it further concluded that “[i]f all available supplies are exploited and reasonable re-use of sewage effluents is introduced, sufficient water can be made available for the forseeable future.  Thereafter, the desalination of sea water will provide for future needs“.

Developing ‘resilience’ implies forward thinking and planning.  Whether or not this drought occurred now, Cape Town should clearly be further down the road in planning for desalination – with pilot scale treatment plants already well established, along with a protocol of environmental guidelines for adding new facilities.

In closing, the 1970 report noted the value of combining power generation and desalination, nowadays a commonality in the Middle East, for example.  Given that we now hear that SA’s next nuclear power facility will be Koebergs’ neighbour, there may be economies of scale for a large desalination facility at the same location?

Forewarned is forearmed = resilience

(Bill Harding is an aquatic ecologist with decades of experience in the Western Cape.  He holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Law from the UCT Law School).

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