9 January 2018

  • The need to augment raw potable supplies in Cape Town, via the re-use of wastewater re-use and/or desalination interventions, was predicted as early as 1970 (i.e. 47 years ago) to be required by the year 2000 (1970 Government Commission on Water Matters). The volumetric estimates of water demand by the latter date (2000) were also predicted with unprecedented accuracy in the 1970 assessment.  While the assessment pre-dated the construction of the Theewaterskloof and Berg River impoundments, it underestimated population growth and did not consider climate change — other than to acknowledge that the ravages of drought can only be offset through planning and optimal resource utilization.
  • Estimates placed the generation of effluent at 70% of total abstraction. For Cape Town, this is an immense volume of water, continuously available for treatment and re-use – instead dumped into the nearest river or the sea.
  • Despite the aforementioned warning, both the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and, in particular, the City of Cape Town (‘CoCT’), have apparently ignored same in favour of more recent reports/predictions which, ostensibly, have played down the need to take substantive preventative action to augment supplies. Despite population expansion and the burgeoning migration to the City, including thousands of economically-disadvantaged families, the CoCT chose to loosely follow a practice of ‘demand-management’.  None of the three interacting spheres of government — national, provincial or local —, however, can excuse themselves from responsibility for the extant crisis.

  • The resolution of the extant crisis is not about apportioning blame. However, meaningful and transparent progress can, arguably, only be achieved if it is underpinned by an open and frank acknowledgement that the situation now being experienced could, quite easily, have been foreseen and avoided.  The ‘we did not see this coming’ excuse holds no water.  The need to act now is self-evident, although years overdue.
  • In the normal course of water resource planning, proactive attention to meeting the needs of future water supply should, unquestionably, have been accelerated by the parallel development of an understanding as to how climate change would affect and exacerbate weather conditions in the Western Cape — inter alia the need for drought-proofing of the water supply.
  • Cape Town and surrounding affected local authorities now find themselves some seventeen (17) years beyond the predicted need for intervention, without having taken action.
  • In contrast to the water security that would be provided by the above long-term interventions (wastewater re-use/desalination), the City has for some years invested many millions of Rands on consultants ‘studying’ the so-called Table Mountain Group Aquifer (TMGA) groundwater solution. This is an unpredictable, extremely-costly, potentially ecosystem disruptive (ecocidal) and almost impossible to ecologically-monitor option that is arguably fatally flawed.  Nonetheless, the City has persisted with this groundwater experiment in the absence of wider and open peer consideration of its merits and/or public dissemination of the findings.  Furthermore, established and proven “off the shelf” technologies such as desalination and wastewater beneficiation, appear to have been deliberately ignored as concomitant options.
  • By contrast with the mining of groundwater — and its ecological demerits — the repurposing of wastewater effluents would not only provide a quantifiable and immediately-available additional source, it would substantially alleviate the degrading of freshwater and marine ecosystems impacted by the practice of using such waters as a convenient means of disposal. The continued disposal of wastewater effluents into the nations water resources willfully ignores the externality costs associated with using the natural environment as a convenient dumping site.
  • The responsibility to provide water is a national competency, not that of local government. Accordingly, the top-down implementation of a levy on the water-user (the ratepayer) to provide financial aid may be constitutionally flawed.  The apparent silence of the DWS on their sustained failure to plan for Cape Town’s aggregate water needs and to make provision for augmenting same is astounding.  It has even been described by some commentators as possibly a political ploy directed against the provincial government.
  • The City of Cape Town has, for many years, bolstered its fiscus with revenues derived from the sale of water and electricity. Such income derivation — with particular respect to water supply — only meets muster if the City has also historically applied the ‘profits’ solely to the development and upkeep of its water supply systems and infrastructure.  As such, the City should now reveal the details of how this income (derived from the sale of water to consumers) has actually been expended for, at least, the past ten years— in particular showing how the considerable revenue earned has been invested towards Cape Towns’ water future.
  • One has also to wonder whether the income generated from the sale of water was not a factor that led to enforcement of compliance, with the prior and long-standing water restrictions, not being more strictly applied in the years and months prior to the ‘panic’ that emerged during 2017?
  • The CoCT makes much of its drought-mitigation actions as being the development of drought-proofing ‘resilience’. By its very nature, resilience cannot be developed during a time of extreme crisis, such as that now being experienced.  Had the warnings of 1970, inter alia, been heeded, elements of the now sorely-needed resilience would already have been in place.  The proposed levy is now required to fund emergency interventions.  While some insights as to the underpinnings for future drought-proofing resilience may emerge from the current crisis, this is not the core purpose right now.
  • The water restrictions now imposed have substantially affected the daily existence of a great number of ratepayers. Many have gone to great lengths and expense, to comply with the regulations and attempt to ‘drought-proof’ their homes and businesses.  As such, given the foregoing history and nature of the present situation, the additional burden of a levy on the ratepayer to bail out the agencies responsible for water supply, is irregular and irrational.  This begs explanation of why the CoCT has chosen to place this additional financial burden on the very people it is tasked to serve, rather than to approach the responsible state agency?
  • Additionally, and in my view, the CoCT ‘face’ of the present crisis is unfortunately solely that of social-media addicted politicians, and not that of competent and experienced hydrological and engineering experts. Confidence in the communication with the public has not been helped by the accusations of maladministration levied against the Executive Mayor – who hitherto has largely been the herald of the water crisis response — during the closing weeks of 2017.  Gone are the days when the City Engineer would be the appropriate mouthpiece —  a professional who cannot avoid incisive questioning by resorting to the phrasebook of political rhetoric.  This is perhaps a ‘lesson-learnt’ that should underpin the true development of ‘resilience’ in the CoCT (as indeed for other local authorities in general) once it/they emerge from the present crisis.  Politics has pervaded all too deeply into most aspects of governance in South Africa in recent years.  A return to apolitical professionalism is urgently required in a field as important as water resource management.
  • Finally, should the levy have to be implemented, it should only be in the form of an interest-bearing loan with under-written repayment terms — alternatively a credit against future municipal rates and taxes.


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