Incompetence, not conspiracy

Contrary to popular belief, there is no conspiracy in the City of Cape Town to create the impression that the water shortage is worse than it actually is, in order to justify charging more per kilolitre.

This sentiment emerges in interesting ways. Somebody drives past the upper Steenbras reservoir on the N2, and notices that it appears to be filled to the brim. Social media lights up instantly with the assertion that there can’t be a water shortage if the dam is that full.

Somebody takes a walk alongClarence Drive below the Steenbras reservoir and spies a bubbling stream of what appears to be crystal-clear water running down the hillside and into False Bay. The assumption is either that the water is running to waste out of the reservoir, or it is a spring that deserves to be harvested to supplement our meagre water supply, rather than going to waste.

All of these assumptions are wrong.

The upper Steenbras reservoir is, at 31 767 mega-litres (ML) capacity, the smallest of the six major supply dams from which Cape Town draws water. Even if it were full, which it seldom is, it could only supply Cape Town for 63 days at current consumption of 505ML/day.

One reason it is kept relatively full – 61.1% as at Monday April 30 – is because unlike Theewaterskloof Dam, it is narrow and deep, which reduces evapotranspiration.

The other reason is a matter of logistics: it plays an important role in moving bulk water between various parts of the Western Cape water supply system’s major facilities, something that goes on continually behind the scenes, as the water engineers grapple with the challenges of balancing water supply such that nobody actually runs out.

Yes, there are streams that emerge from the mountainside above Clarence Drive, and yes, they do run into False Bay, but the water does not come from the Steenbras lower reservoir as many people imagine.

The Steenbras reservoir system is underlaid by an aquitard, “A saturated but poorly permeable bed, formation or group of formations that does not yield water freely to a borehole or spring” according to the Groundwater Dictionary. What’s in the reservoir remains in the reservoir, unless it evaporates or is purified and pumped to consumers.

The springs and seeps that are assumed to be leaks from the reservoir above, are natural springs that emerge from the Nardouw and Peninsula aquifers which underlie that aquitard.

In the same way that most of the springs that flow below the City Bowl into Table Bay are not economically harvestable, neither are these springs and seeps.

While the water might be harvestable in the same way that the Newlands Spring is harvestable, because the water quality is unknown, it must be assumed that it is not potable.

The formations from which these springs and seeps come, are the subject of an exploratory borehole drilling programme by the City of Cape Town, reported on in Bolander (“Steenbras wellfield progresses”, March 21), which may eventually result in abstraction of groundwater in economically viable quanta.

In the meantime, the City of Cape Town continues to exhort the citizenry to use less water to ensure that Day Zero remains forever in the future.

While many people have responded well to the call – daily consumption is close to 500ML/day, just 50ML/day above the target of 450ML/day – despite the savings achieved, the very people who have made the effort to curtail their consumption to below 6 kilolitres a month, seem to be the target group of the latest proposed water tariff increase of 55%.

Non-indigent households currently pay R26.25 for a kilolitre of water for the first 6 kilolitres of consumption, but if the latest increase is approved, that will increase to R40 a kilolitre.

Our monthly consumption varies between three and four kilolitres a month, which costs between R78.75 and R105 a month.

At the new tariff that will increase to between R120 and R160 a month, hardly a fortune one might say, but this tariff increase will also apply to the monthly sewerage charge, limited to 75% of monthly water consumption.

The called for decline in water consumption has resulted in a concomitant decline in revenue from water and sewerage services, and like it or not, the City has no option but to make up the shortfall, in order to balance its budget.

The Municipal Finance Management Act makes no provision for deficit financing of operations, so the City has two options: increase revenue or reduce expenditure.

Clearly the preferred option is a revenue increase. Whether it is through a rates increase, or an increase in the water tariff and the imposition of a monthly service charge, is academic. We end up footing the bill.

What really grates, is that the very people who have responded to the call to cut their water consumption, are the people who bear the brunt of the tariff increase.

Again, these consumers are a logical target for the increased tarrif, because it is this expanding group that uses most of the domestic water each day, which will result in the greatest increase in revenue to the City’s coffers.

The water crisis has been appallingly badly handled by the City of Cape Town, but that it has little option but to balance the budget cannot be used as justification.

Aggrieved consumers who feel the injustice most keenly are unlikely to take to the streets, but will be going to the ballot box soon, and that may cost the ruling party in the City dearly.