When will the water come?

Mayor Patricia de Lille Picture: Tracey Adams

When will all the water come?

Long time waiting

When will all the water come?

Long time to go

When will all the water come?

No single word from anyone

When will they ever learn?

When will they ever learn?

(Sung to the tune of Where have all the flowers gone?)

On Thursday August 17 at 12.35pm, an email from the media office at the City of Cape Town hit my inbox. In it, Mayor Patricia de Lille expounded at length on how the City plans to secure the supply of 500 mega-litres (ML) per day of potable water.

The augmentation measures are listed in three tranches:

°Immediate and first tranche: groundwater extraction – 100ML/day; desalination – land-based containers – 50ML/day; desalination – barge – 50ML/day.

-Second tranche: water reuse – 50ML/day; desalination – land-based permanent – 50ML/day

°Third tranche: desalination – marine-based – 200ML/day.

It is noteworthy that surface water, the traditional source for most of our potable water in the past, is not included. Could it be that surface water is considered too unreliable to figure in the City’s water supply in the future?

The crisis which we now face has been a long time coming, and in fairness to the City of Cape Town, it has been working on mitigation measures for some years now, specifically water re-use and groundwater abstraction, but these measures were only planned to come on line in 2023 and 2024 respectively.

Desalination, until recently, has not featured at all in the City’s plans for water supply augmentation.

The time lines for implementation of these mitigations measures are frighteningly short, if one considers that the winter rain season is pretty much a thing of the past, and the aggregate dam level in the City’s six major supply dams is at 34.2% as at Monday.

Since the last 10% of water is unusable, we have 24.2% of total dam capacity left, which amounts to 217 225ML.

At current consumption levels – 599ML average per day last week – we have 363 days of water left, but that assumes only the City of Cape Town uses the water, which is not the case. A number of other municipalities abstract water from the same dams, as does the agricultural sector. Attempts to establish how much other users abstract – a critical factor in determining remaining water supply – have foundered on the obufscation of officialdom. Our surface water future is unclear, what scenario planner, Clem Sunter, would call a cloudy flag, so the City’s planned augmentation measures are crucial.

Trouble is, the table of mitigation measures in Ms De Lille’s press release is incomplete – it is silent on the matter of implementation dates.

On Monday August 21, I emailed the City’s media office at 8.43pm, requesting implementation dates for the listed augmentation measures.

Having received no response by Thursday close of business as requested, I sent a follow-up email on Friday August 25 at 8.07am.

I followed up that email, with another to City media liaison officer, Simon Maytham, on Monday August 28 at 8.53am, who had responded with alacrity to another enquiry I’d directed to the media office.

By late afternoon Wednesday August 30 the silence emanating from the City’s media office was still deafening, so I called a senior member of the City’s administration for advice.

“Email Xanthea Limberg (Mayoral committee member for informal settlements water and waste services and energy), she has all the answers,” I was told.

To hedge my bets, I called Mr Simon Maytham who denied receiving my email sent on Monday, and suggested that the other emails I’d sent to the City’s media office might have been “blocked” by the City’s mail server. Mr Maytham suggested that my email domain – inl.co.za – might well be the source of the problem.

Why the email I’d sent from the same email address, to which he had responded, had reached the media office remains a mystery.

He asked me to resend the enquiry to him, this time to his personal email address – a GMail account. That email went out at 4.44pm, and the enquiry to Ms Limberg went out at 4.45pm.

At the time of writing – Monday 9am – I have received no response from the City of Cape Town in response to any of my emails. Why?

In the absence of any response from the City, all we have is informed speculation.

Since the water reuse and groundwater augmentation measures were originally planned for 2023 and 2024 respectively, how likely is it that they can be brought online in time?

The 350ML of water from desalination is as much of a cloudy flag, in that it is unclear how long it will take to implement the three planned measures.

The margins of error are razor thin in the business of water supply, and we must ask the obvious question: is the City of Cape Town silent because it fears telling its citizens the truth?

That the planned augmentation measures may not come online in time to supplement the City’s dwindling surface water supply?

Are the taps going to, literally, run dry?

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