The Buried Waters That Can Quench Cape Town

Like many cities in developing nations dealing with decades of urbanisation, South Africa’s Cape Town is struggling to accommodate the population spike. The city has its own unique limits too, quite apart from the massive influx that comes mostly from the eastern regions of the Cape province. A Mediterranean climate, which means wet winters and long, dry summers, has always shaped Cape Town’s water affairs.

Winter rainfall seems to saturate everything in Cape Town. It rains persistently for days, turning the town into a soggy, misty city. In spite of such typically copious winter precipitation, however, infrastructure to actually capture, store and treat water is limited. A vast area of sandy flats broken only by Table Mountain and the eastern and western seaboards, Cape Town’s geography also limits options on conventional water supply.

Water restrictions are commonplace during summers, when there is little to no rainfall at all. South African political history has also played a role in the current persistent crisis. Many comparable cities – like São Paulo in Brazil or even modern Shanghai – are also facing the challenge of providing more water to an expanding population. Apartheid in South Africa, however, artificially delayed much needed plans to resolve Cape Town’s water shortages for decades. The apartheid regime relegated “black affairs” to a lesser status. Little care and even less provision was made for the anticipated population shifts of the emancipated black majority after 1994.

Cape Town today is desperately dependent on its typical winter rainfall and an extreme water-saving consciousness. Sandwiched between a mountain, the eastern Indian and the western Atlantic oceans, the city is not given concentric circles of expansion. Rather, historical occupants and foreign holiday money suffuse the city and suburbs, while outlying shanty towns grow ever larger, yet never closer to the economic hub. Climate change, political bickering, mismanagement and corruption bedevil attempts to sort out the mess. And everyone needs water.

Good water and bad water

Exacerbated by three years of dismal winter rainfall, both private and government researchers have been working to formulate solutions. Previous insights by Cape Town academic Caron von Zeil on the freshwater sources around the city have been making headlines. Von Zeil’s studies have identified myriad water sources that are either inaccessibly buried beneath buildings or visible, but unprotected. From these sources, millions of liters of fresh water run into the ocean every day from beneath Cape Town.

The story of Cape Town’s wasted water was highlighted in a recent short by filmmaker Sven Harding.. Very much like São Paulo in Brazil, Cape Town is often soaked in water, yet either fails to capture it or allows potential resources to become contaminated and flow to the ocean. Commentators have warned that, on top of the fact that such buried fresh water volumes won’t amount to a resolution of the crisis, the water is often polluted or otherwise unsuitable for human consumption.

Yes, critics’ comments about the “negligible” volumes that escape the potable water management system are valid. Capturing the several million liters a day that escape to the oceans wouldn’t solve Cape Town’s water crisis. Capturing fresh water resources where available and erecting processing plants to enable good quality water, however, would still be a huge leap forward in alleviation over the short term. Combined with habitual summer rationing, this would allow authorities some breathing space in which to devise more ingenious long term plans – assuming, of course, that the winter rainfall pattern maintains.

Water, water everywhere, but it’s salty

In a case study of the whole notion of removing salt from seawater for people to drink, Cape Town authorities have started rolling out desalination efforts. There are downstream problems, with pollutants and the residual brine destined to contaminate the ocean, as well as distribution issues that have to date never been properly resolved. Authorities have also encountered issues with the process itself. “Dirty seawater” has shut down desalination plants, and the efforts appear bogged down by a lack of budget and political will.

A private contractor commissioned to run the desalination plant at the touristy V & A Waterfront, has been mired in red tape around health concerns. The current state of desalination in the city presents as a trade-off for Cape Town, in alleviating current human misery in exchange for a long term environmental disaster offshore. That’s if they can get it back up and running, that is. Although only set to produce some two million liters of drinking water a day (around 0.3 percent of the city’s daily needs), even this modest attempt has been stalled since February 2019.

Day Zero looms

The city has long known its own projections on reaching “Day Zero” – when the water really will run out on a daily basis, for everyone. After two seasons of failed winter rains, this was ostensibly to be 11 May 2018. A myriad of interventions as well as heavy publicity around usage have kept most taps on, although Cape Town has been in a state of mild emergency water management ever since.

While it cost the authorities around R5 (€0.32) per kiloliter in 2018 to get dam water to taps, it costs around R39 (€2.51) per kiloliter to do the same with desalinated water. This is a huge jump in price, and a further complication of an already strained situation, even if seawater plants were to start producing significant potable volumes in the near future.

Education and rationing are valid attempts at management, but against the backdrop of an unknown future climate and an ever-rising urban population, Cape Town authorities are limping forward with no real long term solution in sight. Each day as they procrastinate, millions of liters of fresh water from fountains and springs continues to run quietly into the ocean.