Day Zero looms large

Picture: Angus Burns/WWF

The City of Cape Town (CoCT) has finally acknowledged that Day Zero – the day on which the taps will literally be turned off – is likely to be around April 16, assuming that consumption remains at current rates, and there are no new water sources available by this date.

On that day, water supply to households and businesses will be cut off, but vital services such as hospitals and clinics will still receive water.

The CoCT is finalising the location of 200 water collection points around the city, from which residents may collect 25 litres per person per day. These collection points, along with all standpipes in informal settlements, will receive water from the reticulation system. The SAPS and the SANDF will be deployed at all water collection points to maintain law and order, according to a press release from the CoCT.

Unfortunately, misinformation about the current state of our water resource, its use and consumption, as well as potential additional water sources, is rife in social media circles, resulting in heightened alarm and scapegoating.

Facebook and Twitter is alive with assertions that informal settlement residents, who get water which they have to carry to their homes from standpipes, are wasteful and collectively consume a significant amount of the CoCT’s average daily water use, when nothing could be further for the truth. Informal settlement water consumption amounts to between 4% and 6% of total consumption, according to the CoCT.

The assertion that people who live in townships in formal housing with piped water do not pay for water is a fallacy. Their water consumption is metered just like that of consumers in the leafy suburbs, and they pay the same tariff for water. The agricultural sector has been the subject of significant criticism, once again because of misinformation on social media channels.

Local vlogger, Adam Spires, shot a video which incorrectly asserted that a broken sluice gate at Theewaterskloof Dam, the largest of the six major supply dams, was venting water downriver in vast quantities.

Mr Spires also quoted a number of consumption figures for various agricultural activities, which were rebutted by Agri Western Cape in a press statement.

Mr Spires was also behind another video which explores the springs which run under the City in a series of tunnels, which according to Mr Spires, vent seven billion litres of water a year into the sea.

The CoCT’s, mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water and waste services, Xanthea Limberg, responded to Bolander’s media inquiry about the potential for this water source: “The City has measured the yield of high potential springs. Lower-yield – low potential – and seasonal springs were not measured, as the flow would not justify the cost of staff and infrastructure required to treat the water to drinking standards. Detailed costings have not been done, but procuring greater volumes of water could be done more economically, for instance via aquifer abstraction or the treatment of wastewater.

“In terms of harnessing available groundwater, the City is prioritizing abstraction; approximately 150 million litres per day from the Atlantis and Silverstroom, Cape Flats, and Table Mountain Group aquifers in addition to the Albion and Oranjezicht spring sources which are currently being utilised.

“Even if we accept the estimate that 7 billion litres (7 000ML) flows out from Table Mountain per year – we are unsure of the source of this figure, and would like to interrogate it, if possible – and the faulty premise that all of this should or could be incorporated into the drinking water network without overburdening the ratepayer, and then subtract the water that is already being utilised, we could only extend Day Zero for approximately nine days.

“As such we cannot stress enough that each and every resident uses less 50 litres per day.

“Further utilisation of these springs is not the solution to the water crisis, and we consider that suggestion irresponsible at a time when it is conservation efforts
by residents that are most important to sustaining our access to water.

“The City currently produces 2.8 million litres of drinking water per day from the Albion Spring in Newlands, and has recently commissioned a new project to produce approximately 2 million litres of drinking water per day from the Oranjezicht Main Springs Chamber. This has been done under existing water licences.

“In other cases, the City is exploring whether unused spring water could be used for non-potable purposes such as industry and irrigation, and has applied to the National Department of Water and Sanitation to authorise the City to use the water in this way. This would also take pressure off drinking water reserves somewhat.”

The CoCT is pursuing a number of augmentation measures to bolster the rapidly dwindling resource in the six major supply dams, currently at an aggregate level of 27.2%. According to the CoCT’s water dashboard, 150ML a day of groundwater, 120ML a day of desalinated water, and 22ML of reclaimed water – water from waste water treatment plants purified to potable water standards – are planned to be online by the end of the year. At last count, 50% are complete, and some are behind schedule. Some sources are likely to be supplying water by April/May, with greater volumes for desalination and groundwater coming on-stream by July/August. The combined total of 392ML is not sufficient to meet CoCT’s demand of 600ML a day.

There is much concern for the elderly and the infirm, when Day Zero arrives, as they will be unable to stand in a queue in the heat of the day to collect 25 litres of water and then carry it back to their homes

Christine Colvin, WWF-SA’s water programme manager, who publishes a weekly water file on the WWF’s website on Wednesdays, said in her January 17 post: “During times of crisis, we need to look after each other more than ever, especially people who are elderly and not able to get water from the new sources that become available. We’re going to need to get to know our neighbours better and assist them where possible. We’ll be making detailed suggestions soon about what neighbourhoods can do to get ready to get through the crisis together. If you are worried about your own ability to fetch or carry water start speaking to friends, neighbours and family now.”

Somerset West resident, Alexa Ristow, agrees: “If every able-bodied person undertook to help one or two people in their street, or at a local old age home, surely this would help us get through the crisis? I really am hopeful that like before during a big crisis – for example the big fires – we are all going to stand together , find some humour in the situation and get through this together.”

Speaking on behalf of the Somerset West Neighbourhood Watch (SWNW), Sandy Immelman told Bolander that a meeting briefing session will take place on Saturday February 10 in Somerset West. Mayoral committee member for safety and security; and social services, JP Smith, will talk to neighbourhood watch and CPF members in the Helderberg, to share the CoCT’s plans for Day Zero and beyond. “Being ‘for the community, by the community’ and seeing how everyone has rallied in every disaster, I have no doubt that even if this meeting does not address this, SWNW will discuss the matter. A large percentage of our volunteers are employed, however, so I am not sure to what extent we will be able to assist, but what we can do, I know we will.”

Sub-council 8 chairperson Stuart Pringle, spoke to Bolander on Friday afternoon about this issue. “Sub-councils 8 and 24 will be calling a meeting with the neighbourhood watches in the next few weeks as soon as we have more information about Day Zero, so that we can plan a community response.”

While Day Zero may well seem inevitable, it is still within the hands of consumers to delay it. As WWF-SA’s Ms Colvin puts it: “The only way we can delay Day Zero is by drastically reducing our water use right now.”

Level 6B water restrictions come into effect tomorrow, Thursday February 1, and consumers are restricted to 50 litres a day, but already, some Helderberg residents are pulling out all the stops to curtail their water use. Heldervue, Somerset West resident, Diana Jones, told Bolander on Friday that she uses a paltry 29 litres a day. “That’s from the municipal water supply, but I do recycle and reuse every drop of water as well.”

Ms Colvin makes the point that it is vital that all consumers monitor their consumption daily to ensure that they are not over-using. She also suggests keeping a minimum emergency supply in the home, stored in clean bottles.

“And talk to your neighbours, community groups, body corporate, colleagues, boss, school principal and governing body about plans for Day Zero and how we are going to look after each other to get through this together,” she said.