They came under the dark cloak of night, moving silently across the cobbled courtyard to fill their massive bins with fresh water flowing from a natural spring.
They knew they were taking a chance but they carried on.
Eventually, they had to be stopped.
Now, the precious spring is locked behind a metal gate at night – and when it opens at 5am, the queues begin.
It might sound like science fiction, but the spring off the main road at South African Breweries in Newlands is proof of rising tensions over water in Cape Town.
For over a century the natural springs around which the breweries in the area were built have, by agreement, been open to the public.
But as a crippling drought spreads fear across the city about “day zero” – the latest City of Cape Town estimate of when the taps will run dry is May 18 – the spring’s small courtyard could be a sign of what lies ahead.
Notices plastered around the flowing taps announce the rules: 25litres each in the main queue, 15 litres in the express queue.
Members of the public chat casually as they wait their turn but keep a beady eye on the taps, quickly calling out anyone breaking the rules. A guard stops a woman who tries to fill six 5-litre bottles at the express tap.
A sign announcing revised opening hours – 5am to 11pm – explains that this is “due to unfortunate incidents of criminal activity and abuse of the facility”.
According to the brewery, even the shorter hours implemented in April have not been enough to prevent abuse of the facility, and security has been beefed up.
“In recent weeks we have had incidents where members of the public have felt their safety is at risk during the late hours as the collection point is open until 11pm. We have had to manage incidents late at night of people collecting water for commercial use using 1000-litre bulk containers,” said brewery manager John Stenslunde.
Before the drought began, this was a quiet spot but now it is a scene of traffic congestion, illegal parking and crowds of people waiting their turn.
“I come to the spring every two weeks to get water for my microbrewery,” said Jan Langenhoven from Blaauwberg.
“I used to come at 3am but now the spring is closed then. If you come at night, there are sometimes cars as far as the eye can see. In the queue, there is tension: some people try to take more than they’re allowed. But what I don’t get is that the retailers bottle water across the province without restriction, while the man in the street is restricted.”
- 34.2 percent full – The level of Cape Town dams
- 25 litres – What each Capetonian will be allowed to collect each day when the taps run dry
The question of corporate control over water is one that analysts locally and globally have flagged for years.
Bestselling Canadian author Naomi Klein tackled the issue in her book The Shock Doctrine, in which she described a community in Central America where a cooldrink company privatised water to the extent that, overnight, gathering rainwater became illegal.
Karen Jayes, local author of the award-winning novel For the Mercy of Water, which portrays a dystopian society plunged into horror over water scarcity, said she was “devastated” at the prospect of a day not long from now when the army could be guarding water resources in the city.
“When I wrote my book I envisioned this very moment because I had seen that there were many seeking to make business from water, treating it like ‘blue gold’ and mining it and extracting it for financial gain,” she said.
Late last month, the City of Cape Town said the 200 water-collection points planned for “day zero” would probably be guarded by police and soldiers. These might be the practicalities of a plan, but the spectre they raise is symptomatic of a global problem.
According to Stellenbosch University’s Water Institute, “water can no longer be taken for granted, because resources are dwindling. It is an issue of major debate, with predictions that the next big wars will be fought over water.
“We live in a time when billions of people face huge challenges to ensure better access to safe water and effective sanitation.”
Drought and the domino effect
When dam levels drop, the concentration of contaminants in the water rises, causing health problems. Crops die, causing job losses, food shortages and higher prices; this gives rise to “drought refugees”. Excessive groundwater pumping can lead to saltwater intrusion in coastal areas.