What national government is doing about Cape Town’s water crisis

Voëlvlei Dam has been sped up, amongst other measures. But is it enough?

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Photo of dam
The Voëlvlei dam project has been sped up to help Cape Town cope with the drought. Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks

Plans to increase water supply to the Voëlvlei Dam, scheduled to come on stream in 2024, have been fast-tracked to 2019 to help with Cape Town’s water crisis.

Sputnik Ratau, spokesperson for the Department of Water Affairs, told GroundUp that Minister Nomvula Mokonyane had said the project should be accelerated and it would be underway by 2019.

The scheme involves pumping winter rainfall from the Berg River into the dam.

The National Water and Sanitation Management Plan, published in draft form by the Department in December 2017, says that the Voëlvlei project is one of a handful of “projects of national importance” and is set for “urgent implementation”. As the country’s second economic hub, Cape Town “is already in deficit” and the project is “already overdue”, the plan notes.

Though much attention has been focused on the City of Cape Town’s attempts to manage the water crisis, in terms of the Water Act of 1998, the national government is the “public trustee” of the nation’s water resources and must ensure that water is “protected, used, developed, conserved, managed and controlled in a sustainable and equitable manner, for the benefit of all persons”.

“The National Government, acting through the Minister, has the power to regulate the use, flow and control of all water in the Republic,” according to the Act.

Ratau said as well as the Voëlvlei Dam project, the following measures were being put in place by the Department:

  • Monitoring heavy water users

  • Contact with the Borehole Water Association of South Africa to raise awareness about the drought within the association.

  • The department is on emergency standby to urgently implement dredge canals in the Voëlvlei Dam in order to access the last 10% of water that cannot be used at the moment.

Asked what the department would do if Cape Town should run out of water at the end of April 2018 as estimated by the City, Ratau said that “we are not at Day Zero” and the date was just a projection.

But, he said, the department had put “intervention plans” in place. He didn’t explain what these plans were.

Mayor Patricia De Lille said this week that because water consumption was “too high” over the holiday period, Day Zero had been moved from 29 April to 22 April 2018. (Interestingly, the City’s Day Zero estimate corresponds precisely to the one predicted by UCT researcher Piotr Wolski’s online tool.)

Ratau told GroundUp the department was working with both the provincial government and municipalities affected by the drought and water crisis, because “this is not a national department issue alone.”

The City is in “constant touch with the department”, confirmed Peter Flower, director for Water and Sanitation in the City of Cape Town.

Flower explained to GroundUp that usually at this time of year the city used up to 200 million litres daily from the Voëlvlei Dam, but because of the drought only ten million litres were being taken off. Voëlvlei is Cape Town’s second biggest dam, while Theewaterskloof is the largest. Together they make up over 70% of the city’s water supply. Their current levels are 20.6% and 16.8% respectively, compared to 49.5% and 39.2% last year.

Total dam levels are at 29.7% according to the City’s webpage, but the last 10% or so is difficult to use. The city’s overall water usage last week was 578 million litres a day (approximately a further 665 million litres daily are used by agriculture, and about 65 million daily are used by other Western Cape municipalities in the Cape Town catchment area).

Asked if the department would provide additional funding to the City and local municipalities affected by the drought and water crisis, Ratau said the department would wait for Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s budget speech to hear how much money the department would be allocated.

“We don’t know what the budget would be,” Ratau told GroundUp. He said this was “not just about the Western Cape”; other provinces would also need more funding to help with the drought.

The provincial government has estimated that the Western Cape will need an extra R542 million to help areas affected by the drought.

TOPICS:  Cape Town water crisis

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

Your article explains national governments legislated role very nicely but a common refrain from the City is that all bulk water supply is national governments role, so its not the Citys fault the dams (TWK in particular) are empty and theres a water crisis, and that bulk water supply is national governments role therefore its their fault.

Your article makes no mention of bulk water supply role/s or mandates. So whose role is it, when the City itself has a Bulk Water Department and lists it as a competency?

Dear Editor

Over the last three years, there have been thousands of fires, many caused by Arson and some caused by broken bottles or cigarette butts. At one time, there were 144 fires in the Cape region in one day, and many were seen to be lit.

There is never any mention of these fires and all the water wasted, and local water sources depleted. Also, whilst living in Fish Hoek, I lost count over five years of the amount of breaks in worn out water pipes which have still not been replaced, and still there are enormous leaks involving the loss of millions of litres of water.

If the Municipality was doing its job properly, new pipes would have been installed instead of some of the other projects they considered more important. Actually, think about it, what can be more important than water? Also, new buildings are going up at the rate of knots! Building takes enormous amounts of water. Then there are the occupants living in them using more water.

The Municipality gets more rates, but then again, water and other resources, including the limited amount of schools are more important than rates. The City needs money now, but our President has called for free education, meaning less money to ensure water supply.

Without water, no food, no drink, no jobs and nobody alive. That is how important water is!

Dear Editor

It is clear that climate change will make these droughts more frequent and more severe. In view of this scenario what is DWAF planning to ensure that we are not dependent on rain water only. To what extent does desalination play a role? How much should it supply? The Table mountain aquifer has also been suggested. How much is this proposed to supply as a percentage of total city requirement? Driling into hard rock is expensive. Is this source even viable? I believe we should be moving into desalination as soon as possible.

What plans do we have if NO rain falls in winter 2018. Where will our water be sourced from then.

Dear Editor

Thank you for the informative article. The article notes the Voëlvlei Dam project "would be underway by 2019." Will it be completed by 2019 or is this the start of construction? The Voëlvlei Dam project seems to be the only proactive long term solution mentioned to ensure water security, it does not instill utmost confidence for Cape Towns short and mid term water needs.

While population, tourism, and manufacturing have grown substantially little has been done to increase public infrastructure proportionally. Cape Towns roads, hospitals, sewers and other forms of public services are under increasing pressure. Essentially the government has benefited from an increased tax base yet is less prone to reinvest those funds to support that tax base. It's shortsighted not to invest in infrastructure that drives the economy let alone infrastructure that delivers a basic human right, water.

The world can point to environmental conditions but its only part of the equation, the water crisis is also due to lack of planning. Thank goodness leaders can rely on resourceful South African citizens that can withstand rolling blackouts and water shortages. These issues make citizenry environmentally conscious but they also create an enabling platform for diminishing services. Instead of blaming the environment, and the masses leaders lobbied so desperately for, it would be nice to hear a comprehensive plan on how the city intends to support this growth.

What are our leaders doing to fund sustainable growth in our city? Are there forward thinking proactive plans instead of prolonged reactive plans. If government can't realize water security, why not call for private participation? The irony is a city surrounded by water has run out of water.

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