Saldanha economy saved as Misverstand Dam levels rise

2018-04-26 10:16
Water flows from the Berg River Dam. (Screengrab from video supplied by DWS)

Water flows from the Berg River Dam. (Screengrab from video supplied by DWS)

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When 15-year-old Geraldine Marcus walked into the Lucky Star factory in the 1970s for her first day of work as a sardine packer in the cannery, she had no way of knowing that it would be where she would work for the next 37 years.

Now, the 53-year-old is a quality controller in the division's labelling department, meticulously checking the production line as thousands of pink, yellow and blue cans move speedily across a conveyor belt.

But her livelihood came precariously close to being cut off when emergency measures, such as severing the water supply to industry, were considered in the event of Misverstand Dam running dry.

READ: Less than half of the water released from the Berg River is expected to make it to Misverstand Dam - mayor

The Saldanha Bay Local Municipality managed to dodge disaster when the catastrophe was delayed after the Department of Water and Sanitation released more than five million cubic metres of water from Berg River Dam, which started trickling in a day shy of the town's predicted "Day Zero" on Tuesday.

Saldanha is the centre of one of the country's industrial development zones, and up to 60% of its water is for commercial use.

Job security

Marcus is one of 1 200 employees at Lucky Star in St Helena Bay. The plant was under threat as it was forced to drastically cut down its already limited fresh water consumption of up to a million litres per day.


Job security was the determining factor in Lucky Star's decision to rather invest in its own desalination plants at its St Helena and Laaiplek factories, the company's environmental and social risk director Titania Stefanus-Zincke said.

The project came with a R29m price tag.

The company had the option of importing the final canned product for resale, but the implications for staff would have been crippling, she explained.

Marcus works in the factory's labelling department, but remembers manually packing pilchards into cans before modern machinery was introduced.

"I raised my younger sisters with the salary I earned here. If this factory closed, I wouldn't have had an income anymore," Marcus said.

"Practically all the people of Stompneus Bay, where I come from, have been employed here at some point in their lives. This is where you came to work after you left school. Almost our whole community is dependent on this company."

READ: Life-saving water safely reaches Saldanha Bay's supply dam

After being instructed to reduce consumption by the municipality a year ago, Stefanus-Zincke said the company decided to invest in desalinisation as it was already using minimal potable water, opting to use sea water as far as possible.

Emergency pumping

The plant is expected to start running within the next few days as the company awaits its discharge permit.

"Once it is up and running, only 20% of the water we use will be municipal," she said.

According to the Department of Water and Sanitation, water from Misverstand Dam was estimated to run out on April 24, when no further water could be extracted from the dam without emergency pumping.

It released more than five million cubic metres of water from Berg River Dam over a 10-day period, via a pipe that leads to the Wemmershoek control works. Water started trickling into the dam near Moorreesburg on Monday - at that point only 10.4% full - after meandering 138km.

READ: Emergency plans to stave off Saldanha's Day Zero in 7 days' time

But about three million cubic metres was estimated to be lost to obstructions and absorption into the dry riverbeds, Saldanha Bay Local Municipality mayor Marius Koen explained.

Had the water not reached the dam in time, an emergency plan would have been implemented.

Household use of 50l per person per day would have been reduced to 25l and industry would have been cut off, Koen said.

"This would have had a vicious effect on the economy of Saldanha Bay, which is the growth node for the Western Cape," he said.

"We really came very close to a crisis. No water in the Misverstand [Dam] means no water for Saldanha Bay."

The action saved the economy of the West Coast district, Koen believes.


Businesses were severely affected after being forced by the municipality to reduce their consumption by 45%.

It also decided to no longer supply water to the construction industry and water guzzlers, such as car washes.

As far as he knew, the effects were not harsh enough to result in any local businesses closing down, but it became "difficult for them to manage".

"The interesting thing about water use in Saldanha, which is completely different to other areas, is that between 45% and 60% of our total water consumption is industry, which is why it was so difficult to bring us down to the level of consumption as Cape Town has done."

But it appears not everyone was even aware that the town had been saved from disaster in the nick of time. Many locals News24 spoke to said they were aware of the drought, but completely oblivious to the fact that their water was scheduled to run out this week.

A strict system was also in place for residential water wasters - anyone using more than their allocated amount would be fined twice before a restrictor device is attached to their property.

This means 6kl (kilolitres) would be available for the erf per month before the supply is completely cut.

"You are not going to get anymore because you are not sticking to the rules and regulations," Koen said.


According to Weskus Tourism, the drought has also resulted in fewer tourists, especially international markets - Germans in particular - who have cancelled bookings.

"Wesgro went to Germany and Europe to mitigate this and to inform tourists that it is responsible for them to visit the West Coast because less tourists causes a loss in income and a loss in jobs," tourism manager Helena van Rooyen said.

"They must just use water sparingly and responsibly when they are here."

Those offering accommodation have "gone out of their way" to save water, switching to water-saving tap fittings and installing water-saving shower heads, Van Rooyen said.

"They removed bath taps and plugs and installed grey water systems. Signs have been put up to make tourists aware of water saving tips. For example, towels and bedding are only being washed every third day instead of every day. Swimming pools have [also] been closed."

The timing of the release of water from Berg River Dam was perfect, Koen said.

In February, water was released from Voëlvlei Dam, but didn't reach Misverstand Dam.

"We were bargaining on two million litres arriving, but no water reached here because of the dry riverbeds," he said.

The municipality's long-term strategy would be the construction of a desalination plant, which is currently being discussed with the national government.

In the interim, four boreholes are operational, while another four are expected to be ready by the end of May. Eight more will be completed by October, Koen said.

"That will provide us with about 28 million litres a day, which is sustainable and enough... to carry us through."

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Read more on:    cape town  |  drought  |  water crisis

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