Blame game won’t solve Cape Town’s water crisis

Public leaders in all three levels of government must rise above political and personal interests to avoid a humanitarian and economic catastrophe

The rains did not come. In earlier times we would have been blamed the gods; today we blame others — national government (they should have planned for this), provincial government (they are not doing anything), local government (they didn’t see it coming and responded too late), wealthy people (they use too much water), capitalists (they are greedy), poor people (they are too many and should leave Cape Town), tourists (they don’t save water like locals), politicians (they are corrupt/incompetent). National and local government blame each other, provincial government blames national and local, the poor and wealthy blame each other. We are reluctant to accept an uncomfortable reality.

For a moment at least, I ask you to step back from this blame game and explore with me the facts and what can and should be done. The water situation in Cape Town is both uncomfortable and serious. It will require all of us to accept discomfort and to make a contribution to avoid a human and economic catastrophe.


Cape Town is experiencing a drought that is more severe than any previously recorded. There have been three consecutive years of low rainfall. Rainfall in 2016 and 2017 were each individually the lowest rainfall recorded in the last 100 years.

Cape Town’s climate is variable, with wet and dry years. Global climate forecasting models show that Cape Town is likely to experience more drier years and fewer wetter years. Average rainfall is likely to decline but a scenario in which it does not rain again or in which it only rains at or below the 2017 rainfall is unrealistic.


The Department of Water and Sanitation is responsible for planning and implementing schemes to supply water to urban areas, for industries and for irrigation. The department plans to supply water that is sufficient to cater for a one in fifty years drought event. The department planned to augment Cape Town’s water supply system in 2022.

The drought currently being experienced by Cape Town is variously estimated to be between a one in two hundred years and a one in one thousand years event and is therefore much more severe than what was provided for in the planning.

There is an appropriate debate to be had about planning and the extent to which climate change has been factored in. This is important but will not help us get through the current drought.

Short-term responses

The appropriate immediate response to a drought of this kind is to restrict usage. Winter rainfall runoff in 2017, the lowest in recorded history, provided 260 million cubic metres of water into the dams supplying Cape Town, equivalent to 700-million litres a day. Cape Town’s emergency augmentation programme will provide less than 50-million cubic metres of water up to the end of June 2018, that is, less than one fifth of the lowest recorded annual rainfall contribution.

It is not possible to build new water supply capacity at scale and within the required time frames to alleviate the short-term impacts of the drought.

The idea of building temporary large-scale desalination capacity is a costly diversion — it is not possible to build substantial desalination capacity in time to make a material difference to dam levels this summer. Temporary desalination costs more than seven times as much as treated water from Cape Town’s dams and at least three times as much as efficiently procured permanent desalination.

International expert opinion is unequivocal — building temporary desalination at any scale is not an appropriate solution to the drought crisis being experienced in Cape Town as it will not provide substantial water in time to make a difference this summer and the cost would be exorbitant.

Managing the water in the dams by severely restricting withdrawal and use

Cape Town will get through to the next winter rains if and only if the releases from the dams are strictly controlled and use restricted.

Agriculture has used 40 of its 60-million cubic metres restricted annual allocation one month into a five month peak irrigation period (December to April) and releases made by the department to agriculture will have to be stopped well before the end of the growing season. Cape Town has been using about 600-million litres a day (down from a peak of 1 200-million litres a day) but must now use less than 450-million litres a day to achieve its target.

This will be difficult, but it can and must be done through a combination of increasingly uncomfortable measures — punitive tariffs, flow restrictions and pressure management. Cape Town has no choice but to pursue all of these measures aggressively.

Farmers, residents and businesses are all deeply unhappy with these restrictions, however, there is no alternative. Empty dams and the consequential human and economic catastrophe of unimaginable proportions must be avoided.

Achieving these twin objectives of severely reduced agricultural and urban use will require a concerted and co-operative approach by all parties — government, business and civil society, together with public leadership of the kind that is, unfortunately, not yet in evidence. Blame is not useful and public leaders in all three levels of government need to step up to the challenge.

New water supplies

While developing additional supplies of water will not make a material difference to dam levels during this summer, these are very important reduce risk during next summer and beyond. Cape Town is implementing plans to develop ground water resources and to build permanent wastewater reuse and desalination capacity at an appropriate scale cost-effectively. The City must not let the emergency detract attention from accelerating these initiatives. They would be wise to learn lessons from the excellent renewable energy procurement programme and make use of the skills and capacity of the unit that managed this process.

Financial implications

Cape Town water tariffs are volume based. This means that if usage is halved then the tariff must be doubled to maintain the same revenue. Only about 14% of water costs are directly related to the volume of sales (raw water purchases, chemicals and electricity). So a 50% reduction in sales results only in a 7% reduction in costs (though in practice this is less).

At the same time, providing 300-million litres a day of additional capacity through reuse and desalination will increase annual costs by about R1.6bn, increasing water expenses by about 50%. On top of this, the progressive block tariff structure meant that last year the city earned R1.5bn from (mostly wealthier) domestic customers consuming more than 20 cubic metres a month (about 50% of its water revenues).

But consumption above 20 cubic metres is banned. Wealthy customers adhering to the restrictions are using much less water and are paying a fraction of what they were previously. At the current tariff levels, all customers using below 30 cubic metres per month are subsidised.

This is not sustainable and major adjustments are required. This burden should be shared equally by customers and property owners — a catastrophic failure of Cape Town’s water system would wipe out property values. Three major adjustments are needed: the immediate introduction of more punitive tariffs for consumption above 50 litres a person a day (necessary to achieve the 450-million litres a day target), an increase in the property tax to support the transition to a more resilient city (and to avoid the catastrophe), and a restructuring of the tariff next financial year to make it more resilient to drought shocks and to support sustainability.

If I were the president of the ANC, I would request national government to make a contribution to support this transition and to lesson the impact on the poor.






Only 13 out of 35 Cape Town public pools open

Cape Town is experiencing some scorching days in the midst of the drought.

In previous summers, Capetonians could cool down in one of the numerous public swimming baths, but this year only 13 of the City's 35 municipal pools will be open.

The Sea Point swimming pool uses sea water and will be open daily from 7am to 7pm. 

The public pools in Atlantis, Strand, Blue Downs Indoor, Khayelitsha, Bellville, Vulindlela, Retreat, Mnandi, Eastridge, Kensington, Bonteheuwel and Hanover Park have all been open since December 1.

"These pools will remain open until the end of January 2018," said Alderman JP Smith, Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security; and Social Services.

These pools operating hours are from 10am – 4pm. 

"All water backwashed from the swimming pools will be stored, treated, and reused and any water lost through evaporation will be replaced with water from the surrounding pools that will remain closed this season. The use of recycled water, along with the reduced operating hours, will ensure that no water is wasted and that no drinking water is used to top up swimming pools," said Smith.

However, showers and ablutions are switched off and waterless hand sanitisers can be expected to be seen at a number of public washrooms.

The City of Cape Town has beefed up lifeguard presence at beaches and tidal pools "in anticipation of an increase in the number of visitors".





Cape Town Day Zero has moved to May 2018

The residents of Cape Town heeded the call to reduce their water consumption and Day Zero has moved to 13 May 2018. Here is your water update for this week.

Last month, Cape Town announced that if water consumption was not reduced to 500 million litres of collective usage per day or 87 litres each per day for every resident, the supply of municipal water would not be available by March 2018.

The City’s Executive Mayor, Patricia de Lille made an announcement that residents have reduced their water consumption dramatically and Day Zero has now moved to 13 May 2018.

She said in a statement: “The City is also doing its bit. As we bring additional supply online from February onwards with more new water coming online in the months thereafter, Day Zero will be pushed further.”

“We have already brought additional water from the Molteno Reservoir in Oranjezicht and the Atlantis Aquifer, with two million and five million litres per day from these sources respectively,” she added.

The City said that there are currently seven projects already under way in the first phase. These are Monwabisi, Strandfontein, the V&A Waterfront, and Cape Town Harbour desalination plants; the Atlantis and Cape Flats Aquifer projects; and the Zandvliet water recycling project that will be producing an additional 144 million litres per day between February and July, with the yield from these projects rising incrementally in the months thereafter.

Dam levels in Cape Town continue to drop and are sitting at 26% this week while the Western Cape is at 35%.

Here is your weekly dam update:

The Vaal River System consisting of 14 dams serving mainly Gauteng Sasol and Eskom is at 85%.

The Cape Town Dams System consisting of six dams serving mainly City of Cape Town this week are at 35% after some rainfall last week. Phase 1 of their Critical Water Shortages Disaster plan is in effect.

Here are the latest dam percentages throughout the country:






Could towing an iceberg to Cape Town help solve future water problems?

Every time South Africa suffers a serious drought, it doesn’t take long for someone to suggest that an iceberg should be towed from Antarctica to be tapped as a water source. It sounds laughably outlandish, but a company in the United Arab Emirates claims that it is undertaking the task in 2018 in order to alleviate the UAE’s water shortages. Could the same thing work for South Africa?


Water crisis can be good for business

As the water crisis intensifies‚ South African companies are working furiously to meet demand for smart water restrictors.

Durban-based Utility Systems‚ which has supplied the Cape Town municipality with about 300‚000 devices over the last 10 years‚ is now producing 35‚000 water management devices a month.

The company‚ which developed their first device in a garage‚ has close to 1.4-million of the devices connected around the world‚ including parts of Africa‚ South America‚ the Middle East‚ the Far East and New Zealand.

The water management device is a remote communicating electronic water control valve. The smart meter allows water flow limitation and is able to provide prepaid water metering‚ automated meter reading and leaks and tamper detection.

Managing director Peter Rodseth quit his job as a lawyer to invest in the device proposed in the mid-1990s by a client.

"I liked the idea‚ invested some money and commercialised it. It was the first prepaid water system in the world. Initially it was used as a prepaid system‚ but that business was sold off in 1999. I then started this business in 2001. Initially prepaid was not widely used here but in the last 10 years it has taken off. The whole world is moving towards smart meters. Water is a huge focus globally‚" said Rodseth.

"We supply about 60 municipalities in South Africa. Cape Town is our biggest customer‚ with Durban not far behind. We are building 35‚000 devices a month and want to get to 100‚000 capacity to meet the growing orders‚" he said.

He said the company's team of engineers continue to work on improving the product to make it adaptable to different climates and radio frequencies.

Rodseth said the device has been used as a flow limitation device for consumers who are in arrears.

"It was a way to restrict consumers' consumption and is now being installed at more homes‚ especially in Cape Town‚ to get consumers to bring their consumption down due to the drought‚" he said.

Xanthea Limberg‚ Cape Town's mayoral committee member for informal settlements‚ water and waste services and energy‚ said there were currently about 231‚000 water management devices installed across the city.

Limberg said it also served as an early warning system for leaks on a property.

"The city also makes use of the device when restricting customers due to unpaid accounts‚ and provides it to indigent customers to help them avoid finding themselves in debt. Although every programme has its challenges‚ the water management device is an integral part of the City of Cape Town Water Conservation and Water Demand Management Strategy. This strategy was internationally recognised for its success at the 2015 C40 Cities Awards‚ where it was acknowledged as the best in the world in terms of preparing the city for the possible challenges of climate change‚" said Limberg.

According to management of iLembe District Municipality‚ in northern KwaZulu-Natal‚ 21‚821 of the devices have been installed in the region.

"The municipality is currently conducting an assessment which will inform whether or not more similar devices should be installed bearing in mind that some areas within the district currently have limited water supply.

"Implementation of credit control processes by blocking consumers from purchasing remotely by percentage proportioning between consumption and servicing historical debt has yielded positive results both to the municipality as well as to the consumers. This also assisted in curbing perpetual consumer debt increase."

Edwin Sibiya‚ chief executive of Pretoria-based company Lesira-Teq‚ who design‚ manufacture and supply smart metering systems globally‚ said smart metering technologies can make it possible for entities to achieve a lot more than just collecting revenue.

"It is the first step towards achieving control of consumption and builds a strong sense of conservation with end-users. The technology ensures data integrity and they can monitor and manage their water and electricity spend."

Among Lesira-Teq's products is the water management unit‚ which converts mechanical piston meters to smart meters and the water management device.

"It has the ability to set daily or weekly or monthly water or gas or electricity consumption limits with penalty warnings. It can detect a possible leak and burst pipe with automated notification‚" said Sibiya.

Sibiya said they supply corporates and private companies‚ gated and complex communities‚ utility management companies and municipalities.

"Because the water management device and water management unit technology is fairly new and was officially launched in July 2017‚ we are in discussions with various municipalities. Sales have been primarily in the domestic market with over a thousand sold. Most municipalities make use of our prepaid water meters. To date we have supplied and distributed more than 800‚000 units‚" said Sibiya.





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