You can’t drink principles

What used to be part of the Theewaterskloof Dam is now shore. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

At last count – Monday January 1 – the City’s water dashboard gives us 189 062 million litres of accessible water in the six major Western Cape Water Supply System (WCWSS) dams.

Of that, based on historical consumption, 48% goes to agriculture and 52% to domestic and commercial use by the City.

If we maintain total consumption from those dams at at the preceding week’s 561 million litres (ML) per day, we run out of water in 175 days, on Monday June 25, but what are the chances? Despite repeated entreaties by the City, instead of trending steadily downwards, consumption fluctuates alarmingly, for no discernible reason.

At 600ML per day, we run out on Tuesday June 12, and at 650ML per day, on Thursday May 31.

As much as the City would like us to believe that it will be raining significantly by Monday June 25, and that if we can just contain consumption until then we will all be saved, it’s not quite that simple.

At the Western Cape water indaba held at Goudini Spa in May last year, the weather and climate experts attending were hardly upbeat about our rainfall prospects for this winter.

University of Cape Town climate scientist, Dr Peter Johnston, speaking about the upcoming rainfall season, put it this way: “Even if the rainfall is higher than normal, it doesn’t matter, because it will take more than three years to fill up a dam like the Theewaterskloof Dam. In the long term it is more likely to be a dry season than a wet one. Rain or no rain, we are still in trouble.”

The last time the WCWSS dam level aggregate was over 100% was in August 2013, and the trend since then has been steadily downward. Even if the coming rainfall season is the turning point, it will take years to get back up to the point where our surface water supply is secure.

According to a recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change on Monday January 1, unless global warming is kept within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels, southern Africa will become increasingly arid. That means less, not more, rain. Clearly, we can no longer rely on surface water exclusively.

Which brings us to the City’s R3 billion worth of mitigation measures under way, and how they ought to be funded.

The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) is constitutionally responsible for providing us with water supply infrastructure, but the DWS is technically bankrupt, so where will the money come from, even if the City were to drag DWS into court and force it to cough up? From a Treasury that must find the R50 billion needed to plug the gap in anticipated revenue collections by SARS? I think not.

It is easy to pontificate about how the DA administration in the City, and at provincial level has failed us, and to rail against the proposed drought levy currently in the public participation phase, but the reality is that national government is unlikely to lift a finger to help us. The money must come from somewhere, and that “somewhere” will inevitably be the consumer’s pocket.

Nonetheless, the amount of righteous indignation doing the rounds about the City of Cape Town’s planned drought levy is beyond belief, bringing to mind Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

In concluding that a drought levy is the best vehicle for raising the money, the City considered a number of alternatives, but the two most debated are a drought levy and punitively high water tariffs for high consumption users.

The latter is self-defeating, but it is also not legally enforceable right now. The Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) is quite explicit about the matter of tariff increases for services: they cannot be adjusted willy-nilly during the course of a financial year. The earliest opportunity to increase the water tariff, is July 1 this year. But even if the tariff could be increased to the point where even the profligate (and we presume, wealthy) would be forced to use less, the law of diminishing returns comes into play. As consumption declines, so too will revenue.

The only feasible solution is the proposed levy based on municipal property valuation, which for my household, amounts to R60 a month.

This is less than the cost of a pizza, which I will gladly forego, to avoid having to stand in a line – policed by the SANDF and the SAPS to maintain law and order – with a 25-litre container every day, to collect my ration of water from a tanker parked somewhere in my neighbourhood.

If you want to punish the politicians for the pickle in which we find ourselves, do so at the ballot box, although voting the ANC back into power in the Western Cape in 2019, or for that matter in the City of Cape Town in 2021, will do little to alleviate the current situation.

When the taps run dry, which in my view they sooner or later will, the principles upon which the pontificators wish to stand, will do little to fill their 25-litre containers.

Anybody wishing to comment on the City’s proposed drought levy, can do so by emailing drought.charge@capetown.gov.za by Friday January 12.