Dire warning for Cape Town: the taps really could run dry

By News24 Wire
04 April 2017

There is enough water in Cape Town’s dams to last another 100 days.

Taps may run dry in the drought-stricken city of Cape Town and the south-western Cape, as dam levels drop and rainfall forecasts for the region over the next few months are no better than chance, local scientist Nicky Allsopp says.

Allsopp, a scientist at the SA Environmental Observation Network, said after two years of below-average rainfall, the south-western Cape was battling to survive, GroundUp reports.

The ground was so dry that the little rain that had fallen since October just wet the top layer of soil and had not fed the dams that supplied water to the city.

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“For the coming period to June, weather projections presented by the SA Weather Service are uncertain, since forecasts for the south-western Cape have a ‘no better than chance’ probability of occurring. If rains don’t return to normal levels in the next few months, the taps may indeed run dry,” Allsopp said.

The current dry period, measured at the Dwarsberg rain gauge in Jonkershoek, was the worst since records had begun in 1945.

“There has been a massive reduction in stream-flow, and the rain since October has not made any difference to dam levels. The water flowing into the streams now is coming from water stored in rocks,” Allsopp said.

All mountains had cracks and gullies into which rainfall seeped and where it could be stored for years, replenished by winter rains. It was this stored water that was now seeping out of cracks and feeding the dams that fed Cape Town.

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The current low dam levels – 27.3% of storage capacity – would have been even lower had the government not embarked on a programme 20 years ago to hack down alien vegetation in the catchment areas. Unlike indigenous fynbos, alien trees like pines, gums and wattles are water guzzlers.

The last 10% of a dam’s water is mostly unusable, so dam levels are effectively at only 17.3%.

Tighter water restrictions

Cobus Olivier, of the SA Weather Service, said one of the problems with rain forecasts for the country’s winter rainfall area was the lack of certainty. Although the latest long-term forecasts for the south-western Cape published this week had shown that some coastal areas may get higher-than-average rainfall between now and June, this could not be relied on with any certainty.

Olivier said the uncertainty did not apply to the summer rainfall region.

The above-normal rainfall forecasts for the Western Cape therefore had a low probability.

Capetonians were still using 25 million litres a day more than the target of 700 million litres.

If there were not good rains this winter, water restrictions might be intensified.

For households this would mean no more watering of gardens, even with buckets, no more topping up of swimming pools, and a reassessment of water restriction exemptions, said councilor Xanthea Limberg, mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water, waste services and energy.

Technical difficulties

Households used 55% of the city’s water supply and industry 3.9%.

Limberg said this was because there were far fewer industrial customers in Cape Town than residential, and not all these industries required large amounts of water. Some used treated effluent.

All golf courses in the city used recycled effluent.

According to Rand Water, a golf course used between 1.2 million and 3 million litres of water a day.

Most of the few commercial farms in the city used borehole water, Limberg said.

However, there were farms outside Cape Town’s municipal area that shared water from the same dams as the city, which accounted for about 40% of the total water consumption from these dams during summer.

When South Africa’s water laws were rewritten in the mid-1990s, when Kader Asmal was water minister, all surface water came under the ownership of the state.

The intention had been to include borehole water in the revised legislation, said Guy Preston, deputy director of environmental programmes at the Department of Environmental Affairs and a former advisor to Asmal.

However, it had been left out because of technical difficulties in monitoring and measuring flow.

Melanie Gosling, GroundUp

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