Despite the declining agricultural usage contributing significantly to the postponing of the day the taps run dry–from mid-April to mid-May–Cape Town’s water crisis continues


Announcing the postponement of the event popularly known as Day Zero in February, Deputy Mayor Ian Nielson, a professional Hydrological Engineer by trade with a Master’s degree in engineering, explained that despite this partial reprieve, thanks to the agricultural sector, there has been no significant decrease in urban use. He said as such, the city will continue to impose and maintain Level 6B water restrictions. This means that all Capetonians must continue to use no more than 50 litres per person per day to stretch available supplies.

Nielson said in a statement, “Many of the agricultural users in the Western Cape supply system, from where the city also draws its water, have used up the water allocated to them as per agreement with the national department of water sanitation.” He added that agricultural usage was, therefore, likely to drop significantly in the following weeks.

According to the Deputy Mayor, the agricultural sector is currently drawing about 30% of the water in the supply and this should fall to approximately 15% in March and 10% in April. However, he pointed out, “The city does not have any control over agricultural releases, so this is the best estimate we can make with the information at hand.”

Meanwhile, the City of Cape Town’s Health Department has increased the list of springs designated for sampling amid the growing popularity of such springs as a water source.

A statement from the city, said: “This initiative is but one of several key interventions to safeguard the public in a time of increased reliance on alternative water sources such as springs, boreholes, well points and grey water.”

Nevertheless, according to the city, “The only source of safe drinking water remains the municipal water provided through the city’s reticulation system. The water is sampled from formal sampling points across the city on a weekly basis and analysed at the city’s accredited Scientific Services laboratory.”

Springs and water streams do not form part of the city’s water reticulation system and are not monitored and controlled for drinking water standards. Until now, only 10 springs, located among residential areas, have been sampled once a month but more sites are being added to the list. However, the testing only includes microbiological tests for disease-forming agents such as E. coli. City Health is erecting warning signs at all of the sites to highlight that the water quality cannot be guaranteed as safe to drink.

The City of Cape Town put out a message warning consumers that “borehole water is not suitable for drinking or cooking”. The city also advises against connecting a borehole water tank to the plumbing system in the home as it could result in a backflow that risks contaminating the city’s drinking water system.

As more people dip into alternative water sources to augment their consumption needs amid the drought crisis, the city’s Health Department has cautioned about the dos and don’ts and ramped up its response to mitigate potential health risks. For instance, less flushing poses a risk for the city’s sewage system and this could result in increased disease transmission.

Speaking on the John Maytham show on Cape Talk, Epidemiologist and community health expert, Dr Jo Barnes said: “When you flush the toilet very infrequently, the ratio of solids to water is different. Minimal household flushing can cause sedimentation, which will soon result in blocked pipes. Fairly soon, some of the pipes will clog up and, in turn, cause sewage spillage.”

Dr Barnes explained, “Exposed human waste in the summer heat will attract flies and may leave locals more susceptible to diseases.” She advised that families use disinfectant solutions in their toilets, bathrooms and on household surfaces as frequently as possible.

According to Professor Marc Mendelson who heads up the University of Cape Town’s infectious diseases division, “In drought situations, one usually sees an increase in the transmission of bacterial and viral infections through food and waterborne processes? Also, if people wash their hands less, the worry is that we’ll begin to see more diarrhoeal disease in particular.”

At the same time, medical experts are warning that Cape Town’s drought could fuel the growing resistance to common antibiotics as more people are expected to become sick when normal hygiene practices are pushed aside in the name of saving water—resulting in more antibiotics being dispensed.

Meanwhile, Mayoral committee member for Safety and Security and Social Services, JP Smith has assured Capetonians that: “Strategic commercial areas, high-density areas with a significant risk of the increased burden of disease, such as informal settlements, and critical services, such as hospitals, old age homes, prisons, hospitals, fire stations, police stations, clinics, children homes, where possible, will continue to receive drinking water through normal channels.”

In addition to the dire water shortage, the hot, dry, and windy period leading up to the winter rainy season poses a major fire risk for homeowners. Cape Town’s vulnerability to a fire risk in the face of its water crisis is illustrated starkly by the wildfires that ravaged the Knysna area in the Western Cape in June last year, which saw at least 600 homes destroyed, 10 000 people displaced and property damage estimated at R4 billion to R6 billion.

ASP Fire CEO, Michael Van Niekerk offered advice to Cape Town residents of areas that are particularly vulnerable to potentially devastating brush fires, such as Simon’s Town and Noordhoek, on how to fireproof their homes against a potential disaster, suggesting that homeowners in these areas undertake a critical inspection of their residences in order to mitigate any potential fire risk. “Factors that are going to cause your house to go up in flames in the event of a fire breaking out are obviously dry vegetation, leaves and debris in the guttering and long grass. These are easy ways for fires to propagate,” he said.

Therefore, it is essential that homeowners ensure that their outdoors housekeeping is in order. “Ensure that the grass around your home is mown properly. If there is a firebreak nearby, do not rely on the city council to maintain it, as their resources are also limited, but keep an eye on it to ensure it provides adequate protection,” Van Niekerk urged.

At the same time, there have been a number of innovations from both the private and the public sectors to try to help solve the crisis.

For instance, with regards to the city’s elderly and infirm denizens who may not be able to collect water for themselves, one company, Amdec, has taken proactive steps to create water-saving initiatives, which ensure that retirees at its Evergreen retirement developments are catered for.

“Water consumption is already managed on Evergreen properties, with a focus on rain and grey water harvesting and water-wise gardens,” said Cobus Bedeker, Development Director of Evergreen Lifestyle Retirement Villages. One of its latest projects is the development of Val de Vie Evergreen near Paarl—the largest retirement estate in South Africa. The development went off the grid in early December 2017.

“We’re very fortunate to be in a position where there will be no ‘Day Zero’ at Val de Vie,” said Marketing Director, Ryk Neethling. “We have been working proactively with the Drakenstein municipality on this project, which will free up municipal water resources for the community at large that would normally have been channelled to the 1 500 homes on the estate,” he added.

The entire estate taps into the water-saving features already in place on the estate, including a water purification plant to utilise the underground aquifer and move away from reliance on municipal water. All new homes are being fitted with plumbing for grey water systems, along with general water-saving measures across the estate.

Water usage on the estate, including the Pearl Valley Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course has been reduced by more than 50%.

Another group with a stake in the water crisis is the Water Institute of South Africa (WISA). From June 24 to 27, WISA will be hosting its biennial conference and exhibition at the CTICC at which they will be discussing “past, existing and future water resource challenges” and hoping to promote “collaboration, cooperation and integration within the water sector”.

Jason Mingo, the WISA 2018 Technical Committee Chair and Project Manager said, “It is not so much about new innovations that WISA is bringing but how we as a professional body support existing initiatives and provide advice, as required, to those entities responsible for seeing Cape Town and the broader Western Cape through this drought.”

Mingo explained, “The drought is a factor of continued decreasing rainfall over a period of three consecutive years, leading to an unprecedented drought disaster, being experienced by Cape Town. The magnitude of such a disaster, however, has placed Cape Town on the international stage when it comes to its response, meaning there is very little experience globally when it comes to managing such a situation.”

He concluded: “The vulnerability of existing water planning models and mechanisms has been exposed. What is critical now is the response, not only in the short term but in the medium to long term as well. As part of the conference theme of ‘Breaking barriers, Connecting ideas’, the conference seeks to promote a more integrated approach as to how the water sector shifts from master plumbers to master planners.”

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