Cape Town’s water crisis; spending billions now will save the economy

The billions of rands the Cape Town City Council intends spending on creating new water supplies alternative to the now below-30%-full supply-dam average could not be better spent, regardless of whether it gets the prayed-for record rainfall this Winter. With just 100 days of water left – even miraculous record Winter rainfalls (not predicted) will not bring to a halt the current water restrictions which are likely to become total water outages unless the rains come on-time or early (May or June). Depending almost entirely on dams (the near-parched Theewaterskloof Dam in the Overberg has the combined capacity of all other 13 dams) is described as ‘crazy’ by UCT’s environmental and water experts. So, the city is belatedly turning to other options, including going below-ground to Table Mountain’s supposedly generous aquifer, but perhaps more sustainably, desalination plants and vastly-improved water recycling. It’s got pretty close to the analogy of putting up a traffic light after a fatal crash at a dangerous four-way stop, but better late than never, especially when it comes to the life-blood tourism industry, built on Cape Town’s reputation as one of the world’s favourite holiday destinations. Spending nearly R20 billion might sound like an enormous amount, but it’s actually a major long-term investment when compared to the potential economic losses. – Chris Bateman

By Mike Cohen, Paul Vecchiatto and Scarlet Fu.

(Bloomberg) – Cape Town, the crown jewel of South Africa’s tourism industry, has 100 days before it runs out of water.

After two years of the least rainfall on record, the average level of the six main dams that supply the city of 3.7 million people has dropped below 30 percent, one of the lowest levels on record. The last 10 percent of the reservoir water is unusable, and the risk is mounting that taps and pipes will stop flowing before the onset of the winter rainy season that normally starts in May or June.

Even if the supply stretches until then, heavy downpours may be needed to avert outages over the next two years in South Africa’s second-biggest city. Each year more than 850,000 people from the region and abroad fly through the international airport in Cape Town, which the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper has rated as the top city destination for the past four years.

“We are in a real crisis,” Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille said in an interview with Bloomberg Television at the Women4Climate conference in New York on March 8. “People will have to change the way they are doing things. You can only save water while you have water.”

The city council has imposed water restrictions, including bans on using hosepipes to irrigate gardens and fill swimming pools, and fined those who violate them. It’s also lowered the water pressure and stepped up efforts to combat leaks. While those measures have helped reduce average daily summer consumption to 751 million liters (165 million gallons) a day, from 1.1 billion liters a year ago, that’s still shy of the city’s 700-million-liter target.

Diversify Supply

The Cape Town authorities should have done more to diversify its water supply and implemented projects to use treated sewage and effluent, said Kevin Winter, a lecturer and water expert at the University of Cape Town’s Environmental and Geographical Science Department.

Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille

“Ninety-eight percent of water comes from dams and that is crazy,” he said. “We use untreated, high quality water for everything we can think of.”

The lack of water and efforts to conserve it are evident from the city’s withered gardens and parks and closure of most municipal swimming pools. Many of the city’s more than 3.7 million people have taken to using water from their baths and showers to flush toilets and try and keep their plants alive. Providers of wells and equipment that captures runoff from washing machines and bathrooms, known as gray water, are doing a roaring trade.

Tapping Rivers

The city and national governments are implementing and considering several projects to augment the water supply, according to De Lille. These include:

* Pumping surplus water from the Berg River to the Voelvlei Dam, east of Cape Town, which will cost 274 million-rand ($21.6 million) and yield an extra 60 million liters of water a day.* Implementing a 4.5 billion-rand plan to reuse water, which will supply an additional 220 million liters a day.* Building a 15 billion-rand desalination plant that will yield an average of 450 million liters of water a day.* Tapping aquifers from the city’s landmark Table Mountain, which could yield 50 million liters to 100 million liters a day. That project, which would be implemented in several phases, is still being costed.

“The city will probably squeak through this season, but it may not in coming years,” Winter said. “It has been on the cards that water would run out by 2019. This drought has been a wake-up call for the city.”

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