Cape Town’s water crisis stems from its waterways

The 15th of September was World Cleanup Day and it coincided with the 9th Peninsula Paddle event


The 15th of September was World Cleanup Day and it coincided with the 9th Peninsula Paddle event that saw a lively group of citizen activists paddling from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic shoreline to bring attention to the state of Cape Town’s filthy waterways

These waterways are like veins in the human body that carry blood to every part of the system but if damaged, they take a long time to heal and may even perish. Cape Town’s rivers, canals and lakes carry surface water through the city, with most flowing out to sea and some flowing underground.

The health of the Mother City’s waterways is important for cleaning polluted water, for attracting and connecting people across a divided city and maintaining the city’s flora and fauna. Sadly, our waterways are in a state of neglect and are channels for the disposal of solid waste, plastics and liquid contaminants that have caused urban water syndrome.

The annual canoe race is organised by a variety of organisations concerned with the plight of our urban waterways and is unofficially led by the charismatic Dr Kevin Winter, a leading voice at UCT’s Future Water Institute. The knowledgeable professor grew up in a yachting family, he sailed a great deal on inland waters and became increasingly aware of the deteriorating water quality.

The veteran professor outlines some of the urgent environmental issues facing Cape Town’s waterways. “The real challenge here is that we essentially have grey infrastructure, meaning pipelines and channels that have traditionally shifted stormwater, from roads, from areas of fields and agriculture as well. This water has been channelled into our waterways and we’ve assumed that those waterways have the capacity to be refreshed and to be cleaned on an annual basis.

“Clearly that’s not happening—because of climate change, different weather patterns, warmer, drier conditions and long periods of what we call dry antecedent days in which an accumulation of material on the surface creates the levels of pollution that we find, ultimately, when the first rains fall. The first half an hour, largely, of that first rainfall, brings about the highest concentration of pollutants that come off these surfaces.

“But, essentially, the biggest problem for us is that we have a very poor understanding of how water is conveyed from our urban areas into our waterways and as a result, we are geared towards getting rid of our water as fast as we can. We’ve got very little knowledge of the impacts that that has on the urban waterways, and I’m talking more about public participation at this stage, and the capacity from local authorities to try to deal with these. In a sense, we’ve been leaving the job to cleansing agents, like the local authority, and doing very little from a public perspective,” he explains.

Citizen mobilisation

We clearly need active citizens more than ever but we also need herculean political support from the city and involvement from the private sector. Over the last 12 months in Cape Town, the conversation has been about Day Zero and the supply of water, but we cannot hope to build a resilient, water-sensitive city if our waterways are polluted and pose the risk of damaging underground water resources.

When the Peninsula Paddle idea first began in 2009, the slogan was ‘the health of the city is seen in its waterways’. The waterways have improved since the first paddle, but not enough, according to Dr Winter.

He reflects on the state of the water in 2018: “We were particularly pleased with what we saw from the Peninsula Paddle and that was only because we were very fortunate that it rained the night before, so many of these waterways were quite clean. The results we were getting were surprisingly good, in fact, probably the best in terms of the water quality we’ve seen for a long time. Having said that, there are pockets where a lot of waste material has accumulated. Among others is the Salt River mouth, which is showing high levels of plastics that are going out to sea, all the way from the Black River and eventually into the Table Bay area. That really is a human failure.

“Certainly, the waterways have improved since our very first paddle. During our very first paddle, in fact, during the first two or three, we spent a lot of the time dragging our boats out of the river because we couldn’t paddle through the water hyacinth. The Black River, in particular, has improved a great deal since then,” Dr Winter says.

Lobbying for change

The Peninsula Paddle raised public awareness on the day as paddlers journeyed from Muizenberg to Milnerton through some of the most unpleasant canals and rivers. The City of Cape Town needs to take a stronger lead to deal with urban drainage and enable new partnerships to address the problem. We should not allow tonnes of plastics and other solid litter to flow out to sea every day. Dr Winter sees a difference in the waste found in richer suburbs compared to poorer communities downstream.

“In Steenberg and other poor areas, we’re finding all kinds of very strange deposits of heavy metals, of furniture, of CDs, of tape recorders, of televisions and of glass, all in the canals in small pockets. Of course, we were lucky not to see as much (compared to earlier years), but there’s a lot of it—the canals are being treated as a convenient conduit for getting rid of the waste. I work in the Liesbeek River quite a bit, which is more closely connected to a wealthier suburb and the streets alongside it. There, it’s straws and cigarette butts which are typically found,” he says.

Levels of awareness

Dr Winter goes on to outline the levels of awareness about the dangers of dumping and how leaders should get the message across to respect Mother Nature and not treat our rivers live a dump site.

“The ability to be able to recycle in this country is hampered by the poor incentives, so one of the things I constantly say about a local authority and other leaders, for instance, is that we are not generating enough plastic to feed our polywood and recycling units. That means we’re generating it but it is not reaching recycling plants. What our leaders have to be doing—and I’ve spoken about this for a long time—is looking for incentives in which plastics, for instance, can be turned into viable products.

“In terms of the City of Cape Town, it needs to start purchasing equipment—park benches, it could be bridges—and it could be all kinds of structures that are made from polywood. Polywood is robust and can withstand some of the climatic conditions like heat and contraction. We should start putting this much closer to the agenda as a vehicle for job creation, as there are many untapped recycling opportunities. We shouldn’t see plastic coming down onto our beaches, that’s crazy. We’ve got a use for them; we’ve got to find better conduits for building these businesses, and do it very, very seriously,” he says.

Duel-use rivers

If you travel to Europe, urban rivers are often the city’s centrepiece, with bars, restaurants and parks lining the waterways, which are teaming with life. In South Africa, we make very little use of our waterways, often cementing over the natural vegetation, taking much of the aesthetic appeal away.

“We need lots of money to develop them but we also need lots of willpower and, really, it’s community willpower that is going to change the way we are managing our waterways. We obviously need support from the city as well, and the city can’t do it all on its own. In addition, the way we promote the city’s waterways now has to be well-positioned within both climate change and the environmental factors that can mitigate against the warming of these blue-green corridors that need to receive greater attention.

“It’s a climate change strategy because it cools down the city, it provides recreational space and for us in the Peninsula Paddle, the hue and cry we’ve used over the years is that the waterways connect us, so it’s also about the social importance of bringing this entertainment and the parks together. It’s about how South Africans socialise along these rivers and we need to really take that seriously. When you bring nature back into the cities, you bring people back into these cities, back to the waterways, and they begin to appreciate it much more. The impact that a bio-diverse waterway system has on a city is amazing,” Dr Winter explains.

Water security

Cape Town experienced its worst drought in living memory recently and Dr Winter believes we are not out of the woods just yet. However, he is pleased that a more frugal approach to water usage was evident during the worst of the dry spell.

“We’re not out of difficulty yet but we’ve learnt to use water more frugally and we’re managing that better. Thus, in that sense, our water security is on track far better than it’s ever been before. On a week-to-week basis, I now know exactly what the city is using. The recycling of water is going to become much more critical in the future. We also have to see the city as a catchment—two-thirds of the water that we really need is falling on the city and we seem to be unable to really deal with that. Capture it, manage it better. What we’re going to see, on the positive side, is the improved ability to handle surface water and stormwater in particular—that’s starting to grow a great deal. In the long term, desalination is definitely going to save the city. We’re going to have to invest in a bigger plant as well,” insists Winter.

Technology to the rescue

Scientists working in the mining industry have been pioneers in recycling polluted mine water into potable water. Could our urban waterways be saved by similar technology? Dr Winter is bullish and, in fact, is already working on similar projects at the innovative Water Hub in Franschhoek.

“This is a good question because it’s exactly what we’re doing at the Water Hub in Franschhoek. We are taking water, bringing it up onto the surface, taking it through very large bio-filters and beginning to treat it. We’ve been absolutely surprised at how amazing these passive technologies work; these nature-based solutions are able to deal with the water quality, it’s quite surprising,” he concludes.

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