On Cape Town's water crisis

Thomas Johnson questions whether errant gardeners are to blame for the City's current woes

‘Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink’

To use an analogy, just as US President Donald Trump is blaming Mexicans for the US’ perceived economic problems, so the City of Cape Town is blaming Cape Town households for the city’s water crises.

Cape Town’s water shortage is serious.  As at 23 January 2017 major dam levels were 40.4%, and the previous week 42.5%.  The table and graph below of the city’s major dam levels show declining water levels from 2013 (81.2%) to the present. 

On 1 January 2015 the city implemented Level 2 water restrictions limiting watering of lawns to Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday before 9:00 or after 16:00. 

In December 2015 at the final council meeting of the year council approved Level 2 restrictions, “due to low dam levels”, after an amendment concerning alternative water source users “such as rain water harvesting, grey water, treated effluent water, well points and boreholes”. 

Effective from 1 January 2016, these users “should only water their gardens, parks and open spaces before 9am in the morning and after 6pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and not for more than an hour”.  They must also register with the city and display visible signs for using alternative sources. 

The then mayoral committee member for utility services Ernest Sonnenberg said the “city was situated in a ‘water-scarce region’ and Level 1 restrictions or 10 percent water savings were imposed at all times”. 

From 1 January 2016 the city implemented an escalating tariff designed to reduce consumption by 10 percent.  (This caused problems for some residents, including my household, who said they had been overcharged.  We were levied almost R8 000 for February 2016 when our usual consumption for that time of year was about 20% of that amount, which they only reversed after an exasperated, last resort letter to the newspaper. But Sonnenburg insisted the city was right and complaining public wrong.)

On 18 October 2016 the city imposed Level 3 water restrictions, effective from November 1.  As with Level 2, they were mostly aimed at domestic recreational use.  Level 3 only permits buckets to water gardens and washing cars, manually topping-up pools, and no irrigation or automatic systems under any circumstances.  Residents were advised to install “water efficient parts, fittings and technologies” and pool covers.

Businesses – commercial and industrial – and government escaped severest restrictions, and were exempted on application to the director of water and sanitation. The only restriction they had in common with residents was no washing or hosing of pavements and driveways.  They also had to install water efficient parts/technologies.

So Cape Town’s dam levels were below 50% since the end of 2015 and the only users that are being penalised and bearing the burden of conservation are the city’s garden, car and pool-owning public, i.e., the middle-classes (the indigent who receive free water are not affected). Recently, the city has begun policing and fining (residential) transgressors.

Our house has a large garden (and no pool). Since the imposition of Level 3 we’ve complied with the spirit and mostly letter of restrictions.  I say “mostly” because sometimes it’s not practical to use buckets to do what we need to.  But for over a year we’ve used buckets to transport grey water to the garden and are very conscious about conservation including, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.  If it’s brown, wash it down”. 

I argue most households are complying with restrictions, as Mayor Patricia de Lille indirectly confirmed this week (see below).  For example, as I’ve been able to observe in my immediate neighbourhood of over a 100 houses, only about half dozen residents regularly water their gardens with hosepipes and sprinklers, a very small percentage of non-compliance.  Except for those who might have boreholes, gardens are looking parched (the odd day of rain, like this week, makes a noticeable difference).

So if the majority are complying, total city residential consumption should have dropped, but it’s not, leaving me wondering who is responsible for the increasing amount.  However, at times bordering on hysteria, the city, councillors, media and some residents are blaming households for the high consumption, water shortage and low dam levels.

Mayoral committee member for water services Xanthea Limberg was reported saying that in the past month dam levels dropped from 51.2% to 42.5% (note: what about evaporation?), and consumption increased from 859 to 890 million litres a day, on average, compared to the previous week.  She said, “If approved, [strengthened restrictions] would include more stringent conditions on the use of drinking water for watering gardens.”

In a letter to the Southern Suburbs Tatler, councillor Mark Kleinschmidt wrote, “I continue to receive reports of residents hosing their grass verges and lawns – some as early as 3am to avoid prosecution”. (Note the threat of “prosecution”.)

Consider this headline “You can't drink a green lawn” from the People’s Post’s editorial on January 24, and similar daily exhortations from media and media personalities addressed to households – not businesses and government also – to reduce consumption and not to water their gardens (again with the gardens). 

People’s Post: “The question you should be asking is: ‘What am I (not your neighbour, the City and industry) doing to save water?’” 

While I agree with the overall sentiment, that’s exactly what I’m asking: With dam levels now at 40% why are restrictions only aimed at residents/households, but businesses and government are exempted?  

And why are the majority of Cape Town’s household presumed not to be following restrictions and, according to allegations, the cause of high, increasing consumption?

 On January 26 council approved Level 3B restrictions.  As before, restrictions target households, particularly the “minority” – 20 000 – that use 50 kilolitres a month rather than the mandated 30 kilolitres. But there are no special restrictions on other large consumers – business and government.

I don’t have a problem with the restrictions because they are necessary.  But the city and clamouring media have not provided evidence that households per se are responsible for the city’s consumption increasing 31 million litres a day and “water bills increasing by R2.54 million [shouldn’t it be “billion”?] over the past 12 months despite restrictions” (De Lille). 

And specifically, they have not provided evidence, except anecdotal, that watering gardens is the main/only cause behind alleged overconsumption.  Instead, what we have are emotional rumour and gossip and lack of detailed facts pointing to possible causes, which the media, perhaps not asking the questions they should of the city, have latched onto and sensationalised.

How much water does commerce, retail, hospitality, factories and government use?  What of shopping malls like V&A, Canal Walk and many others?

What is the consumption of hotels and related industry where tourists return from the beach, Table Mountain, etc and have long showers before going to dinner, then return for another long shower before bed, unaware or unconcerned about the dams? 

How much water do the civic centre and media complexes use, and have they installed water saving devices everywhere?

Surely, these are the mega-water users?  Restrictions on them are almost completely absent, and we don’t know if the city is enforcing their required use of “water efficient parts/technologies”.  But residents are being issued with penalties and fines.

Over the past week I wrote to the local papers and Peter Flower, the director of water and sanitation, with these questions, copying Limberg.  Neither Limberg nor Flower replied.

·         What is the water consumption by user category – household, business and government?

·         How does the city know for certain (please provide evidence) that it’s householders and specifically residents watering gardens, etc that’s causing increased consumption?

·         Why, despite dam levels consistently dropping since winter, are large water users including sports fields, garden centres, golf and race courses, commerce, industry and government exempted from restrictions? 

·         How do they know these mega-users are not responsible for the lack of conservation and increased consumption?

·         Why are households being blamed for the crises and not where it correctly belongs, i.e., all users? 

·         Is the city expediently blaming households, and reluctant to blame business, etc for political reasons?

This holiday season Cape Town experienced a “record numbers of tourists with more to come” – over 522 000, the bulk international and elsewhere from South Africa.  These new people need water.  Using the city's estimate of 240l per person per day, they used 125 million litres a day.  That's personal consumption.  If we include indirect consumption – an industry to support their needs – it might be double that. 

I asked Flower if they accounted for this.

I heard water bottlers that bottle tap water for sale using the reverse osmosis process lose three out of four litres, water that probably goes down the drain.  Has the city issued restrictions for them?

The word “crises” is used to describe anything from a burst water pipe to emptying dams.  But with the rainy season still months away – if we get substantial rain – “crises” is indeed appropriate.

Recently University of Cape Town Environmental and Geographical Sciences researcher and lecturer Kevin Winter said Cape Town has only 100 days of water left:  “We can’t see any rain on the horizon. And right now, in terms of our dam storage levels, we’re probably approaching 100 days of storage”.  

The city confirmed that without rain dam levels could drop to 20%.  But apparently they have “reserves”.

However, I’m having a hard time understanding that with this impeding disaster, Level 3B restrictions just approved and those in the past are really aimed only at one class of user – residents/households, which are expected to shoulder almost 100% of the conservation efforts for the entire city. 

Like Trump irrationally and unfairly blaming Mexicans and other immigrants for America’s problems, I think the city is making ratepayer households a scapegoat for failed water conservation efforts that’s not entirely their fault (I agree there are defaulters).  And for deflecting attention from emergency measures they should have but are reluctant to impose city-wide because of its economic impact.  Would you rather there be a slight but manageable negative economic effect –  electricity load-shedding showed businesses survived – or a situation where dams levels are below 20%  and the entire city – residents, business and government – are without water?

The last question I asked Flower is if the city should seriously consider seawater desalination. A 2015 feasibility study report said a desalination plant would cost $1.3 billion, but the city has made no decision.  He didn’t respond to that either.

Note Israel, which pioneered innovative desalination techniques, now has a water surplus (One of the driest countries on Earth now makes more fresh water than it needs).  Unfortunately their progress in the technology, and if South Africa should use it, is mired in the politics of the region.

I’m an amateur urban economist.  I hold a now redundant master’s degree in urban infrastructure management from my former alma mater, UCT. 

Thomas Johnson