City bid to reclaim water lost to sea
A mole-like tour in stormwater tunnels under the streets reveals future possibilities, writes ELLA SMOOK
LATELY there have been increased warnings about the city’s water resources dwindling – but vast quantities of fresh water are wasted every winter. The first war in the Cape of Good Hope – between the indigenous Koina clans and the Dutch East India Company in 1659 – was fought over water.
Commentators are now warning that the future could see water again becoming a source of conflict.
But the Cape Town Partnership has been investigating alternative ways to ensure Cape Town’s sustainability, and has been researching how to divert the thousands of litres of stormwater rushing down Table Mountain, through the city’s bowels and out into the sea.
This week , a Weekend Argus team went underground with members of the partnership to witness the potential flowing unchecked below the city’s streets.
Project Reclaim Camissa, which aims to make better use of the city’s fresh water in a myriad of creative ways, is one of the partnership’s “big ideas”.
The project is still in its research phase, and neither a concrete development plan nor a timeline for implementation exists, but possibilities include that water be used for hydro-electrical generation and irrigation of parks and the Green Point Common, as well as ponds for parks, pedestrian walkways and new urban public spaces.
Such projects will celebrate the waters that link the mountain to the sea, the past to the future and people to the environment, Camissa project leader Caron von Zeil says.
She believes the city has the potential to become self-sustainable again, and her vision is to ensure that by 2020 a new civic infrastructure inspired by a deliberate recognition of, and respect for, the social, cultural and ecological significance of the city’s water, will be in place.
For now, however, the water courses along brick-lined tunnels out of sight, where only colonies of cockroaches bear witness to its passage.
This week, the roaches had some rare company, as Von Zeil and the partnership showed a group of about 50 people how much water the city would have at its disposal if Camissa – the place of sweet waters, as Khoi herders once called the City Bowl – is reclaimed.
We entered the stormwater system through a manhole in upper Oranjezicht and climbed fugitive-like from a manhole within the grounds of the Castle of Good Hope two wet kilometres later.
Despite the waivers that were signed and the ambulance parked metres from the open manhole, nervousness set in when it was explained that guides had a numbered list of manholes we could use as emergency exits in the event of panic attacks.
Crouched in the concrete stormwater pipes while waiting for the rest of the team to descend, boots already filled with water, the precariousness of our position hit home and anxiety threatened to end the excursion before it began.
But fear of later taunts trumped immediate anxiety and we set off – happily unprepared flashlight-wise – down the system. Armchair philosophy abounded as we made our way, crouching low and slipping, through the racing water.
Historical facts – some more accurate than others – were bandied about and hazard warnings were passed from the team leader down the line.
About a third of the way down the mountain, the subterranean scenery changed. We could now walk upright, and were surrounded no longer by a concrete structure but by a facebrick, built canal.
Stalactites started to make their appearance, as did the first cockroach, whose plentiful friends would only be encountered further down the line.
There would be no rats, we were thankfully, and truthfully, assured.
Throughout the walk, we silently thanked the designers of stormwater systems as the occasional pool of light and air found its way down into the dark.
The sounds of the dense city traffic several metres overhead was barely audible, but occasionally team leader Dwain Esterhuizen of FO8 – an events company that has taken extreme adventure seekers down this particular drain before – would relay our real-world orientation,
That’s how we knew when we were under the Gardens shopping centre, or Harrington Street, or Roeland Street.
Rumour had it that the manhole covers in Roeland Street outside Parliament had been welded shut.
Some said it was done for former US president Bill Clinton’s visit, someone else reckoned it had been the doing of apartheid head of state PW Botha.
Not much further down the line, things started getting a bit smelly – and old.
We entered the third and last leg of the journey, where the facebrick was replaced by the same stone which had been used to build the castle.
And the tunnel changed shape from its earlier perfect roundness to a more squished oval shape, built by hand during the earliest days of the Cape colony.
History enveloped the awed walkers, whose heads had been gently brushed by cobwebs throughout.
At manhole number 14, the glorious sunlight streaming through the end of the tunnel beckoned, and gave us new appreciation of the old saying.
Clambering clumsily from the manhole on to the grass at the side of the Castle, we took a while through the disorientation to register the cars racing down Darling Street.
There in the distance was Table Mountain, from where we had earlier surveyed the route we would travel.
Reality slowly returned, and we were back in the present.
Partnership CEO Andrew Boraine said the aim of the stormwater walk had been to get a better understanding of the water system and flow, particularly how it went from the mountain to the sea under the city.
“The walk convinced me more than ever that Reclaim Camissa is a necessary and viable project for us,” he said.
GOING TO WASTE: The amount of fresh water constantly rushing to the ocean has not yet been determined, but could undoubtedly make a significant impact on future sustainability. PICTURE: SAM CLARK