Clem Sunter

Why we need a weekly drought bulletin for Cape Town

2017-07-12 08:54
IN DIE SUIDE: Die Theewaterskloofdam naby Villiersdorp in die Wes-Kaap is slegs 30% vol. 
Foto: Conrad Bornman

IN DIE SUIDE: Die Theewaterskloofdam naby Villiersdorp in die Wes-Kaap is slegs 30% vol. Foto: Conrad Bornman

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At the end of a column I wrote in January this year for News24, I offered three scenarios for Cape Town’s drought.

The first is that it rains sufficiently to make the problem go away in the short term. The second was that the drought continues, but we find alternative water sources to escape catastrophe. The third was that we create a large number of climate refugees. In the extreme, this will mean halving the permanent population of Cape Town during the summer season and discouraging tourists with all the economic consequences that flow from that.

As we speak, our dam levels are just over 25% and we have – thank the heavens – had some rain. This time in July, 2016 we were a little over 43%, the year before that 54% and in 2014 96%. From 43% in July last year we fell to just below 20% in June, 2017 of which the last 10% is deemed useless because it is either too dirty or cannot be accessed. If the same drop of 23% happens in the next 12 months, we will have 2% in our dams this time next year but we will have reached the 10% useless level in March, 2018.

Obviously, water restrictions have brought down general consumption but, to say the least, the prospects are bleak if you study those aforementioned figures. Yet, I have not seen in any issue of the local media either in print or on the internet a weekly analysis of the latest rainfall data and the latest projections by experts. We have plenty of news about the markets, state capture, political divisions and the leadership race but nothing on the one thing that could turn our lives upside down: the availability of water.

I propose that some editor out there rolls up his or her sleeves, assembles the best weather forecasters and climatologists in Cape Town and asks them to give us their best range of estimates for the next twelve months and the longer term. This should be done every week in a drought bulletin. Running probabilities should be attached to the scenarios that I outlined at the beginning of this article. This in turn will depend on the rainfall that has occurred during the previous week as well as that which is expected in the next fourteen days.

This will allow ordinary people and communities to make sensible decisions about what their most reasonable options are, bearing in mind the relative cost of say putting in a tank or sinking a borehole. It will also act as a much better inducement to people to cut consumption by having some knowledge of the big picture, as opposed to being given a single figure for dam levels accompanied by a daily consumption target.

I like to call this recommendation thinking like a fox, but it also goes under the better known title of risk management. The weather flags are all up there in the sky but it requires the specialists to give their collective opinion on them. As the flags change each week like the clouds, so the expert opinion on their significance will be revised if necessary. Given the uncertainty, the process must be dynamic and the judgements qualified where fit. Even then, a surprise can come out of the blue.

In addition, we obviously need to be kept up to date on a regular basis with the big projects underway to alleviate the situation, whether they are about new supply from desalination and underground aquifers, recycling, smarter water management techniques in agriculture and industry or any other innovative measures.

Finally, we also need some idea of what a comprehensive disaster plan entails should the taps literally run dry or nearly so. Nobody at the moment knows where the water collection points would be, the times of day to arrive to avoid the long queues if at all possible and how to help those in real distress.

Please will somebody in the media give this article the thought it deserves and better still act on it by arranging a weekly drought bulletin. Nature at times trumps the political, social and economic universe!

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Read more on:    cape town  |  drought  |  water crisis
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