Drought: Has Cape Town planned properly for Day Zero?

There are several unanswered questions

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Photo of Theewaterskloof dam.
Cape Town’s largest dam, Theewaterskloof, is down to less than 24% of its capacity. Photo from 11 May: Ashraf Hendricks

“Day Zero is the stark reality we face when most taps will be turned off and residents will have to queue for water.” This sombre announcement was made by Mayor Patricia de Lille at the launch of the City of Cape Town’s water dashboard on 23 November.

Day Zero kicks in when the dams are down to 13.5%. It is hard to extract water from the dams when they are below 10%. Currently they’re at 35%. Last week, which had a good dollop of rain, levels dropped one percentage point. The City currently estimates 20 May as Day Zero. It’s a moving target and obviously a rough estimate.

Curious to understand both how Day Zero is calculated, and how things will work if it happens, we sent the City some probing questions.

How is Day Zero calculated

“Day Zero is calculated by subtracting the expected usage of water from the Western Cape Water Supply System current dam volumes,” Xanthea Limberg, the Mayco member in charge of water, told us.

We asked for access to the spreadsheet or computer programme that calculates Day Zero, but so far the City hasn’t provided this.

Piotr Wolski, a water scientist at the University of Cape Town, has created a tool to assess dam levels in the Western Cape called the Big Six Monitor. It currently calculates Day Zero to arrive on 21 April. But if you (1) push Wolski’s estimated household water consumption down from 600 million litres per day to the City’s target of 500 million litres per day, and (2) add 196 million litres per day of additional water from 1 February that the City hopes to introduce, coincidentally enough, you get the same date as the City: 20 May.

The calculation takes into account agricultural usage (665 million litres daily), usage by small municipalities (65 million) and household usage, as well as evaporation.

Bringing new water online doesn’t push Day Zero off as far you might think. For example in the past few months the City has brought an extra 7 million litres daily online. But that delays Day Zero less than a day.

How does the City plan to bring nearly 200 million additional litres per day online by February? It has seven projects lined up. According to Limberg: “These are Monwabisi, Strandfontein, the V&A Waterfront, and Cape Town Harbour desalination plants; the Atlantis and Cape Flats Aquifer projects; and the Zandvliet water recycling project”. The problem is that not all of this will come online instantly from 1 February.

Limberg says the City also has “12 projects in the advanced stage of planning that are ready to proceed if required.”

If households do manage to drop consumption to 500 million litres per day, let’s say from this week, that delays Day Zero by nearly two weeks.

Logistical challenges of Day Zero

The City has planned to have 200 water collection points for Day Zero. How do you arrange these points in a 2,400 km2 city? Even if you could find an optimal way to do this (extremely difficult in Cape Town), the average person will live a couple of kilometres from a point. We asked the City for details.

Limberg said the locations of the collection points were selected based on

  • location of water supply pipes and valves;
  • location of critical infrastructure such as hospitals and clinics;
  • population density from area to area; and
  • location of informal settlements.

She did not provide a map of the collection points.

“Every water collection site will have several standpipes, depending on the size and shape of the site,” said Limberg. “These are connected to the City water infrastructure and every standpipe will have two taps with flexible hoses connected to the taps.”

Limberg said that water in informal settlements “will largely remain connected”.

How will people collect water? Can one person collect for the whole household? What about people who don’t have cars? And people who are frail? What about people living in blocks of flats without lifts?

Limberg said that people will have to get themselves to and from water collection points. She said “special provisions will be made to ensure that vulnerable groups are able to access water.” But she provided no details on how this will work.

“We are engaging with national and provincial government, businesses, communities and NGOs to support us to care for the elderly and those with disabilities,” said Limberg.

Does the municipal water infrastructure allow for water to be provided only to the 200 collection points, but not to their surrounding neighbourhoods? Limberg did not answer this question.

And how do you service Cape Town’s 1.26 million households daily?

We crudely calculated that the distribution points would have to be providing water to about eight households a minute, 12 hours a day. Even if, let’s optimistically say, half the city’s households manage to find a way to avoid using the water collection points, that’s still four households per minute. The logistics of getting that right are daunting.

TOPICS:  Cape Town water crisis Water

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

So Patricia is on the radio telling us how we are going to queue for water. I really don't think she has thought this through.

On the figures provided there will be two collection points for every 3 suburbs - which means around 6,000 people who will be queuing every day at each collection point.

If there are 3 tankers per collection point we will need 600 tankers and 600 tanker drivers.

6,000 people are going to need parking at the collection points.There is no mention of how much water each of the 6,000 people will get but let's say 50 litres. Nobody can carry 50 litres to their car.

We will need around a million 50 litre water containers - do they exist ?

And this will happen every day.

Dear Editor

Thank you for clearly and unambiguously outlining the problem in an easily comprehensible way.

Your projections send a chill up my spine.

Dear Editor

Something mentioned here, that has been troubling me for some time is how people who aren't particularly strong are going to carry these 5 litres i.e. 5 kg of water to wherever they live. Please keep pushing De Lille for an answer to this.

Dear Editor

To date almost all the commentary on the Cape Town water crisis has been technicist in nature. We should be learning lessons on how the residents are likely to behave from a city like Sao Paulo, which has recently experienced water shortages. We may have the naive notion that Capetonians will all pull together - sort of how we are doing at present - but once the water runs out who knows.

We could then be "socializing" the Cape Town residents for the coming outage. "Threatening" the army is not the finest solution. We must certainly start to think about and then address the socioeconomic consequences of running out of water, in fact even of nearly running out of water.

- Agriculture in the Western Cape has already started to feel the pain. Farmers will harvest from 20% to 80% less than the normal annual production. The tomato puree factory in Lutzville will not open this year. 50,000 jobs are on the line.

- People trying to steal, poison or destroy water, from others' swimming pools, JoJo tanks and boreholes as envy, stress and need for water rises in intensity.

- Declining seasonal employment in agriculture and tourism leading to greater poverty for those already living on the economic margins and the consequent potential social unrest.

- Neighbour turning on neighbour as they either see someone "wasting" water or fight over declining water availability.

- Body corporates disintegrating over how to manage water outages in the extensive network of flats on higher ground in the city bowl and UCT areas.

- People with money exiting Cape Town, either permanently or temporarily, having a further knock on effect on the economy. Forget about anyone starting a new business that employs semi-skilled workers.

- Schools having to close because of a lack of sanitation and water. What do those kids do all day?

We have seen the first evidence of the potential social disorder at the Newlands spring, but we certainly haven't seen how this is going to play out and we don't seem to be seeking out lessons to help us manage the pending consequences.

Dear Editor

From the water point I will have to carry 80 litres of water everyday, because I have 2 kids aged 1 and 6 and I have a 82 year old granny living by me. This water point plan is not a plan. It's going to be a disaster. Why doesn't the City of Cape Town from today onwards open the taps only at halve the pressure or less, then for 5 minutes of every hour we will have access to water. We don't have to queue for water. The City of Cape Town does not have to spend money on a water point plan which is going to cost us taxpayers millions of rands. From then onwards we just pray and hope for good rain. A solution for people who continue to go over the required limit: just switch off there electricity. Imagine no water and no electricity.

Dear Editor

What will be done to ensure our safety? What about the working class? How are we supposed to collect water for ourselves and kids who are unable to carry if we don't have transportation at night? Was this thought of? Why can't they implement a water shedding system where water will be available from lets say 5 to 10 pm and then 5 to 10 am? Is this not possible?

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