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Cape Town water crisis: How bad is it?

By Jessica Anne Wood

There are many claims making the rounds regarding the ongoing water crisis in the country. Some of the claims include those stating that Cape Town only has 100 days of water left, with others warning of water-shedding. However, you need not put stock in all the claims of the fear mongers. Here Priya Reddy, City of Cape Town spokesperson, has put to rest some of the stories doing the rounds.

Does Cape Town only have 100 days of water left?

Despite what some are claiming, Reddy highlighted that the City of Cape Town does not expect to run out of water before the next rainy season. “However according to our projections dam levels may ‘bottom out’ at a very low 20% if current rates of extraction continue. This leaves a very low margin of safety as it is difficult to abstract the last 10% of a dam’s volume.”

Furthermore, Reddy noted that while the city is the largest consumer of water from the Western Cape Water Supply System (WCWSS), the major dams also supply water to neighbouring towns in the region, as well as agriculture. “It is therefore important for all users of water from the WCWSS to adhere to the restrictions imposed by the national Department of Water and Sanitation in the region,” added Reddy.

While the city has more than 100 days’ worth of water left it and its residents are still in a precarious situation. National Government has imposed a requirement that everyone reduces their water consumption by 20%. Reddy explained that residents will need to use less than 800 million litres of water per day, collectively, to reach this target. “According to the City’s calculations, if residents ensure that their consumption over summer stays in line with their consumption over the winter months, we will meet this target.”

Consumers appear to be struggling to meet this target. Reddy pointed out that as of Monday 9 January 2017, residents of Cape Town had exceeded the daily water consumption target by more than 50 million litres.

The City has calculated that if residents were to use the same amount of water during summer as they did in winter 2016, it would be able to meet the consumption target that National Government has imposed.

“Key areas where residents need to cut back are the watering of gardens and filling of pools. Approximately 35% of total water supplied by the City of Cape Town is used for these non-essential purposes.

“Residents should also check their internal plumbing for leaks. In order to do this, residents should turn off all taps and appliances in the house that use water, wait 30 – 60 minutes for the boiler to fill, and check whether the reading on their water meter continues to increase. If the meter is still turning, there is a leak somewhere on the internal plumbing,” advised Reddy.

Does the city have access to alternative sources of fresh water?

One of the claims making the rounds is that the City of Cape Town could use fresh water from the likes of springs in the areas that are suitable for drinking, yet is not doing so.

Reddy clarified that the City is working to make use of the excess flow that some of the streams in the region offer. “The City is working to make use of the excess flow that some of these streams offer. Certain high-yielding springs can be used for irrigation of sports fields, parks and other larger-scale gardens. Currently the known use in the CBD is the irrigation at the Cape Town Stadium and surrounding area, and irrigation in sections of the Company’s Garden. The City has just concluded a study regarding how this water can be used more extensively in a sustainable manner. The City is now engaging with the Department of Water and Sanitation and other stakeholders and preparing a licence application for use of the water.”

However, Reddy emphasised that these springs have not been considered as a supplement to drinking water, as the cost to treat the water would not justify the small amount of drinking water that it would yield.

“Filtration and disinfection barriers would be required to protect community health, as would a pressure feed into the adjacent network and additional staff to control the treatment process. Use of the water for other purposes such as irrigation or industrial processes would be more cost-effective and simpler to achieve. The yield from these springs is not such that it would offset the effects of the current drought, however the planned usage will take some pressure off the City’s potable water reserves,” added Reddy.

The use of water for survival

In a recent interview on Cape Talk, Peter Flower, director for water and sanitation for the City of Cape Town mentioned that water may soon only be used for survival, and people may not be allowed to water their gardens, wash their cars, and other tasks requiring water that are not seen as essential.

Reddy highlighted that the use of potable water for the washing of hard surfaces, washing of cars, watering of gardens and filling of pools is considered less essential, and makes up approximately 35% of the total water consumed in Cape Town.

When asked how close we are to this situation, Reddy said: “The City is working via Council processes to implement more stringent restrictions as current restrictions are not resulting in the water saving that is required. These are subject to Council approval, however, they are likely to include more stringent conditions on the use of potable water for watering gardens and filling pools.”

Any amendments to the current restrictions will be considered in a meeting of the full Council. In the meantime, all Capetonians can and should do is meet the current water restrictions and use as little water as possible.

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