IN DEEP WA­TER Are we do­ing enough to find so­lu­tions?

We asked cli­mate sci­en­tist Dr Peter John­ston, fu­tur­ol­o­gist Clem Sunter, and City of Cape Town Mayco mem­ber Xanthea Lim­berg for their takes on the wa­ter cri­sis in the Western Cape.

Fairlady - - BIG ISSUE - By Shireen Fisher


Desalination is magic. You take sea­wa­ter, pump it into the ma­chine and mag­i­cally get fresh wa­ter. It’s what we call a black box. It’s a process of re­v­erse os­mo­sis: the salt is taken out, leav­ing you with pure wa­ter.

But you first have to get a dam full of wa­ter. Our empty dams are nowhere near the sea, so if we want to put sea­wa­ter in those dams, we have to pump it up­hill. This would use a lot of elec­tric­ity, so cost be­comes sig­nif­i­cant.

Be­cause of the vol­umes of wa­ter we’re talk­ing about, it’s a huge job to in­te­grate desalination with the ex­ist­ing dams.

For the next 10 years, we have enough ca­pac­ity in the dams. So if it rains nor­mally, we won’t need desalination. If we in­stal a desalination plant, we must use it. If the plant is not used, peo­ple will ask, ‘Why did you waste money build­ing the plant?’

Desalination is a really good op­tion for us if we do it in small quan­ti­ties. So new sub­urbs lo­cated near the coast could be con­nected to a small desalination plant that will pro­duce enough for that area. Un­for­tu­nately, there isn’t really space for a new sub­urb near the coast, un­less you go up the West Coast. It’s very dry any­way, so it’s ideal to use desalination plants – in fact, they’ve al­ready done so. To con­struct a desalination plant for the whole of Cape Town is silly. It would cost bil­lions and it’s not go­ing to be needed.

Clem Sunter

Desalination is used in the Mid­dle East and Aus­tralia to make up for the short­fall of wa­ter caused by lower av­er­age rain­fall, which is mainly due to cli­mate change. Both Perth and Ade­laide have desalination plants.

I think the City has es­ti­mated that a plant ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing 500 million litres a day, which is the tar­get be­ing set by Cape Town at the mo­ment, could cost as much as R16 bil­lion, plus more than R1 bil­lion a year to run. But it’s much better than run­ning se­ri­ously short of wa­ter.

Xanthea Lim­berg

The city’s wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion de­part­ment has a 30-year wa­ter sup­ply plan and desalination is listed as an op­tion. Given the fact that we’re a coastal city, it would be the most ob­vi­ous part of the broader so­lu­tion. We haven’t im­ple­mented desalination yet be­cause it hasn’t been re­quired. It comes at a mas­sive cap­i­tal in­vest­ment cost and there are also ma­jor op­er­at­ing and man­age­ment ex­penses. We’d have to fac­tor in and in­tro­duce this in a man­ner that is sus­tain­able for the City, as an or­gan­i­sa­tion, but also for res­i­dents who are car­ry­ing the bur­den of some of those in­fras­truc­tural costs.

To min­imise the im­pact of con­tin­ued drought, we have a wa­ter re­silience task team, made up of tech­ni­cal of­fi­cials. We’re also in the process of es­tab­lish­ing a wa­ter re­silience com­mit­tee, which will be made up of ex­ter­nal ad­vi­sory ex­perts from academia, and busi­ness sec­tor bod­ies, and desalination will be un­packed.

The City be­lieves we need to fo­cus on be­com­ing wa­ter-sen­si­tive and wa­ter-re­silient. The new nor­mal is wa­ter scarcity and we’re ad­e­quately plan­ning for that. We’re look­ing for so­lu­tions that will pro­vide be­tween 100–500 million litres of wa­ter a day. We put out a re­quest for ideas and in­for­ma­tion to un­der­stand what op­tions there are in terms of alternative fund­ing mod­els and mech­a­nisms to fi­nance some­thing like a wa­ter desalination plant, and to ex­plore whether rental op­tions are avail­able. We’re con­sid­er­ing rental op­tions so the in­fra­struc­ture doesn’t go to waste when there is ad­e­quate rain­fall. We’re also con­sid­er­ing the fi­nan­cial bur­dens and im­pact, and the longevity of a plant of that na­ture.


So what’s an aquifer? Is it a big dam that runs un­der the sur­face that we can tap into? Is it a big hole in the ground that is full of wa­ter, like a cave?

The an­swer is no. It’s wa­ter trapped in the rocks un­der the sur­face that’s pos­si­bly avail­able. If you dig a bore­hole, wa­ter flows un­der the rocks into the lit­tle hole and you can pump it out. We don’t know how long we can keep do­ing this be­cause no­body can work out how much wa­ter is down there. The Cape Flats is ex­posed to an aquifer. The level rises and seeps out of the ground, then you get sur­face flood­ing from the wa­ter from the aquifer.

If we pump that wa­ter out, it has to be pu­ri­fied – it’s be­ing pol­luted by all sorts of hu­man ac­tiv­ity. The City may de­cide to use that wa­ter for grey wa­ter pur­poses, such as clean­ing streets or for putting out fires or gar­den­ing.

Aquifers have a role, but I don’t think they should nec­es­sar­ily be in­tro­duced into the do­mes­tic wa­ter sup­ply.

Clem Sunter

There are aquifers in the Cape Flats and un­der Ta­ble Moun­tain, but if you take too much wa­ter away, it low­ers the ground­wa­ter level and that can cre­ate other prob­lems.

Xanthea Lim­berg

We have to di­ver­sify our wa­ter sup­ply be­yond our cur­rent base of sur­face wa­ter in dams to desalination, re­cy­cling waste wa­ter, and drilling into aquifers and other un­der­ground wa­ter bod­ies.


There are two ways of look­ing at it. One is the City’s in­ter­nal process; clearly they’re wor­ried about the sit­u­a­tion, and the other is the ex­ter­nal process: they don’t want peo­ple to panic and think that they’re do­ing noth­ing. In­ter­nally, they’ve been do­ing a lot, for a long time. There is the Western Cape Wa­ter Man­age­ment Strat­egy, which the city is part of. We’ve had three unusu­ally low rain­fall years in a row. It’s a one in 100 or one in 50 years’ sit­u­a­tion. You can’t plan for that; but you have to deal with it, and the con­tin­gen­cies are the wa­ter re­stric­tions, which the City has put in place.

The prob­lem is the sit­u­a­tion got worse and re­stric­tions had to get fiercer. Peo­ple think it’s not their re­spon­si­bil­ity, so they don’t do it un­til they’re forced to. The City is work­ing out a sup­ply plan. They now have to wield the stick and keep ask­ing peo­ple to use less wa­ter. It’s go­ing to be made a lot more ex­pen­sive so that peo­ple ac­tu­ally feel it. Wa­ter is never go­ing to be cheap again. I don’t think wa­ter should be cheap.

Clem Sunter

We need in­for­ma­tion to change the be­hav­iour of peo­ple to­wards wa­ter. I think it’s still some­thing that is taken for granted, rather than seen as an in­creas­ingly pre­cious re­source. Ob­vi­ously, the City of Cape Town is pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion – they’re send­ing it out with the wa­ter bills, but we need con­sid­er­ably more. We need a weekly drought bul­letin. Per­haps some aca­demics who are into wa­ter af­fairs and cli­mate could put this to­gether to give us a feel of how dire the sit­u­a­tion is. At the mo­ment, we get the weekly dam per­cent­age and how much wa­ter the city has used.

Xanthea Lim­berg

The City has been hon­est about the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. To drive down con­sump­tion, we’ve had wa­ter re­stric­tions in place for two years. The fact that we’ve been so strin­gent on de­mand man­age­ment shows we have been try­ing to make peo­ple steadily aware of the wa­ter cri­sis. We’ve achieved those saving re­quire­ments and have been proac­tive by im­ple­ment­ing re­stric­tions way be­fore the Na­tional De­part­ment of Wa­ter and San­i­ta­tion in­di­cated we should. Week on week, we com­mu­ni­cate the dam lev­els on the elec­tronic bill­boards on the high­ways, on our web­site, and through ra­dio and video in­serts and me­dia re­leases.


The first thing is not to think that be­cause it rains our prob­lems are over. The temp­ta­tion is to look out­side and say, ‘Oh, look how nice and green it is. It’s been rain­ing. I can run the tap a lit­tle longer. I can have a longer shower…’

We have to keep think­ing about how pre­cious wa­ter is. Look at the wa­ter bill and try to keep wa­ter us­age down to less than 87 litres per per­son per day. It’s not dif­fi­cult to do that.

The sec­ond thing is to look at in­fra­struc­ture: check whether your gar­den is wa­ter-wise, whether you’re stor­ing wa­ter off your roof that’s just rush­ing away, etc. Some op­tions are costly and some aren’t. A wa­ter tank is not go­ing to kill you fi­nan­cially, and if you can use that wa­ter, great – but don’t put one up with­out find­ing out how to use it.

Lastly, when it does rain, peo­ple shouldn’t say: ‘It’s such ter­ri­ble weather.’ All weather is good – rain is good. Some­one wrote that they’d can­celled an event be­cause of bad weather. I said, ‘You didn’t can­cel it be­cause of bad weather; you can­celled it be­cause the weather didn’t suit you.’

Clem Sunter

We’ve got to have some kind of ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme, maybe, as I said, a weekly bul­letin, to give peo­ple a good idea of where we stand. There’s a lot more that can be done just to show peo­ple how they can con­serve wa­ter.

You’ve got to make peo­ple more ex­cited about get­ting cre­ative. They need to get their own wa­ter so­lu­tions. It’s all go­ing to re­quire a real change in mind­sets and you want that change be­fore you have a shock event.

Xanthea Lim­berg

We’re cur­rently un­der level 4b wa­ter re­stric­tions, which re­quire in­di­vid­u­als to con­sume no more than 87 litres a day. There’s also a wa­ter in­spec­torate unit that goes out to en­sure that peo­ple ad­here to re­stric­tions. We mon­i­tor high con­sumers and have been is­su­ing warn­ing no­tices, fines and no­tices to ap­pear in court. All of those in­ter­ven­tions will be on­go­ing. The lat­est warn­ing no­tices sent out fo­cused on high con­sumers who haven’t re­duced con­sump­tion. We’ve given them time to re­duce, and fail­ure to do so will re­sult in the in­stal­la­tion of wa­ter de­mand man­age­ment de­vices on their prop­er­ties that will re­strict their con­sump­tion un­til it reaches ac­cept­able lev­els. Of course, we’ll be mind­ful of the num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing on the prop­erty.

You can also re­port con­tra­ven­tions via the call centre. And we’ve launched a What­sapp num­ber for wa­ter com­plaints to en­sure that res­i­dents mon­i­tor one an­other – a large por­tion of wa­ter wastage hap­pens be­hind closed doors. It’s your toi­lets flush­ing con­stantly, your show­er­ing and bathing, do­ing your dishes, the amount of wa­ter you con­sume with cook­ing… the City has very lim­ited con­trol over those things. We’ve bro­ken down what 87 litres of wa­ter ac­tu­ally means for you. It means you can flush your toi­let only twice a day. We’ve bro­ken down those sav­ings con­tri­bu­tions into easy step-by-step guides on how ev­ery­one can play their part. I think it’s im­por­tant for res­i­dents to un­der­stand that we all form part of the holis­tic so­lu­tion.

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