News24 water investigation: Warnings and a turning point

2017-10-16 12:49
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Cape Town - In May this year - five months ago - the City of Cape Town realised the way it was handling the drought crisis was not working.

It had to rethink its plan.

Up to then, this had been to focus on pushing down water demand and supplementing its supply through limited new schemes.

SPECIAL REPORT: View News24's water crisis coverage

"Internally, we developed new scenarios based on the most pessimistic view of the drought and likely rainfall," said Xanthea Limberg, mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water and waste services; and energy.

"We had to acknowledge that the impacts of climate change added significant uncertainty to existing models.

"It meant constructing the new normal scenario - one in which we do not bank on water scarcity ending."

Worst ever drought

Most of South Africa is in the grips of a drought, with Cape Town experiencing the worst one in its recorded history.

In May, the Western Cape was declared a disaster area.

Extreme water restrictions are in place in Cape Town and, last week, it was announced that water rationing via pressure reduction would be carried out during peak hours in pre-selected suburbs.

READ: Taps slow down to trickle as water rationing starts in Cape Town

The City of Cape Town anticipates that its supply of municipal water will run out around March 2018.

Under the umbrella of the national Department of Water and Sanitation, the City is tackling the drought crisis.

The national department has not respond to extensive News24 queries on the matter since last week.

News24 has established that there have been repeated warnings over the years about the Western Cape water situation.

Sources with intimate knowledge of the matter say the City may have dragged its feet, by about a month, in communicating the urgency of the situation to the public.

READ: How Cape Town plans to tackle water disaster

However, the City feels it has done enough, and timeously, given how unexpected the length and extremity of the drought has been.

A 2010 situation analysis by the Department of Water Affairs, entitled "Integrated water resource planning for South Africa", said that climate change was "a major threat" to Western Cape water resources.

"Interventions to augment water supplies can be fast-tracked, should any drastic and unexpected changes in climate start to manifest," it said.

‘Looming water crisis predicted’ 12 years ago

A June 2005 document, "A Status Quo, Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessment of the Physical and Socio-Economic Effects of Climate Change in the Western Cape", which was co-ordinated by the South African National Biodiversity Institute, and which also displays a provincial government logo, said the province was then already experiencing a drought.

It warned of "a looming crisis in water supply". However, the City said this report was outdated.

"The protracted nature and severity of this particular drought could not have been foreseen a decade or more ago," Limberg said.

She said the City had done more than it was mandated to do in an effort to deal with the water crisis.

Unpredictable severity

Limberg said the most unpredictable aspect of the drought was its "protracted and extreme nature".

She said that, for decades, the City of Cape Town had been well served by its water supply infrastructure and water management techniques. This had got it through previous droughts.

Before the current drought, the city had been using water under its allocation, which was determined by the national Department of Water and Sanitation.

"Despite our population growth almost doubling since 1996, our water demand has remained relatively flat," Limberg said.

"The City, as early as 2000, started implementing aggressive pressure management technology, infrastructure maintenance, and public education initiatives to drive water conservation and water demand management."

This programme won an international award at the 2015 C40 Cities Awards in Paris.

Limberg said, without it, the city may have run out of water by now.

Turning point

"Up until May this year, the City’s approach was based principally on driving down demand and supplementing supply with limited new augmentation schemes, in accordance with international best practice," she said.

This approach had worked before and was based on projections from hydrological and dam modelling.

"However, especially due to the protracted nature of this particular drought, it became very apparent that we could no longer solely rely on this approach," Limberg said.

Water restrictions, she said, had been in place since 2005.

These had been intensified in December 2015 and had been made more extreme since then.

Money matters

To try and boost water supplies, the city hoped that, between December 2017 and the March/April period in 2018, between 150 and 250 million litres would be at some production stage each day.

It was hoped this would increase to 300 million litres by May 2018.

"This will include land-and sea-based desalination, water reclamation and groundwater abstraction projects, if all goes according to plan," Limberg said.

READ: Cape Town's groundwater plan targets 'impossible'

Initial related plans were meant to have been in operation in the second half of this year.

"But this has been adjusted to allow for a more resilience-based response and to include additional augmentation projects," Limberg said.

Extra funding was needed to accommodate these plans.

"Our finance team is working on making funding sources available, including cash, reprioritisation of existing water projects, a concessionary loan from an external funder, and curtailing expenditure elsewhere in the administration," Limberg  explained.

"While the City will do everything in its power to curb expenditure across the administration to reduce the impact on future tariffs, we can expect tariff increases significantly above inflation in the 2018/2019 financial year."

'Too expensive for success'

Kevin Winter, of the environmental and geographical science (EGS) department at the University of Cape Town (UCT), however, does not think the water shortage warnings a decade ago were strong and convincing.

"Sure, there was a tough period in 2004 and 2005, but the City's Water Demand Management programme worked really well, in fact too well, but this programme only works when there is sufficient rainfall," he said.

"The difficulty is about preparing for severe drought. That's not easy to predict and is always going to be too costly to prevent failure."

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Read more on:    city of cape town  |  xanthea limberg  |  cape town  |  drought  |  water crisis

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