The slow onset crisis unfolding in South Africa is – at least in my professional opinion – about to enter a new phase. Gauteng came within a week of running out of water last year, saved only by a major rainfall event that fell – literally – deep in the eleventh hour. Many think that the drought has gone away, so they no longer worry.
Cape Town is now where Gauteng was over a year ago. Unless it rains in the next 4 months, then the water supply will literally collapse by March 2018. This is very serious, so I have decided to write this piece in a sincere effort to galvanize constructive debate in the public interest.
Remember that the Western Cape is a winter rainfall area, so we are now out of the normal rainfall season, entering the dry season with dams less than 30% full. But this only tells part of the story. Note the following observations from recent data:
1) Distinct seasonal cyclicality, as rain falls in the winter followed by a dry summer.
2) Useable water is always less than dam levels, because of losses and other factors.
3) Each peak since 2014 has been lower than the previous peak, with a near-linear downwards trend over the last three years.
4) Each trough follows a similar trend, being lower than the previous cycle.
5) The data stops in October 2017 (present date) on a high that is lower than all previous highs in this dataset, so extrapolating historical data into the future, we see a total system crash in March 2018.
This is dire. In fact, this will be the first case of total system failure in the country. Without water, commerce is not possible. Shopping centres cannot operate if people cannot flush toilets. Banks cannot have staff on the premises if they cannot use the toilet. Schools cannot operate if children are unable to remain hydrated and to flush toilets (here the proxy is a school in Port Shepstone that was forced to send pupils home for the same reason).
Hotels cannot provide for guests, so the tourism industry fails. Hospitals cannot function, so patients need to be transported elsewhere (here the most accurate proxy indicator is the Murchison Hospital near Port Shepstone where water supplies have failed). If a high-rise building should start to burn, then there is insufficient water to extinguish the flames (here the proxy is Braamfontein a year ago).
As I said, this is dire. I am not being alarmist because everything I have said in the previous paragraph has already happened in different parts of the country. I have posted information on some of these specific events on my Facebook page, so scroll there to educate yourself. In fact, some businesses are now starting to think about having to run a short week – to stretch the water.
So, with these facts as a background, we can ask some probing questions. Here I offer these to any journalist that might be reading, because these are the kinds of questions that citizens need to know about if they are to have a sensible conversation with their elected government officials. Yes – I am trying to mobilize the media, so in effect, I am now becoming an activist, and if this somehow disqualifies me from legitimate further engagement, then so be it.
The first question is why has national government (run by the ANC) not reacted to the data from the National Water Resource Strategy published two decades ago that stated, with a high level of confidence, that four water management areas would be in deficit by 2025, with the Berg River being one? I don’t know the answer to this, but suggest one of two alternatives. Either government was simply incompetent after purging all the skilled technicians, in order to create space to reward loyal cadres. Or the ANC is deliberately strangling the DA by withholding infrastructure development funds in the belief that system failure will enable them to regain power. (I sincerely hope that I am wrong in this observation because it takes politics to a new low in this country).
The second question is why the Terms of Reference for any new solution have been framed in a way that deliberately excludes desalination as an option? This is done by calling only for temporary solutions, thereby reducing the payback time to such an extent that desalination is prohibitive. Does this betray the fact that the decision-makers are unaware of the dire situation they are in and therefore assume (wrongly) that when the drought is broken everything will go back to normal? Best available science shows that rainfall is declining over long-time scales and cold fronts are not penetrating as deeply onto land as they used to. In short, rainfall patterns are changing – and the Western Cape will naturally revert to a desert similar to the Namib and the Karoo. Or is there a more sinister motive? Are there vested interests that wish to keep desalination out of the game, being protected by gatekeepers in local and provincial government? I don’t know the answers to this, but the question deserves to be asked.
The third question is on what technical basis has the sustainable yield of the Table Mountain Aquifer and other local groundwater resources been estimated? One of the four pillars of the strategy recently announced by Mayor de Lille, is groundwater. But, as demand grows and more water is abstracted, while at the same time rainfall trends show a distinct declining trend, then recharge is going to decrease and with that the sustainable yield will be severely impacted. Are these politicians merely ignorant and clutching at straws by the allure of the Cinderella resource beneath their feet? What is their understanding of the Ghyben-Herzberg Principle that tells us, with a high level of confidence, that when you abstract fresh water from a coastal aquifer, then salt water intrusion is a logical outcome. Are business interests which are dependent on drilling maybe influencing this agenda? Has anyone in power even asked the question about aquifer recharge?
The fourth question is what plans do businesses have in face of the projected probability that unless there is a storm event of unprecedented magnitude – a natural disaster in its own right – they will have no more business after March 2018? What strategies are directors of companies developing to protect the interest of investors and the livelihoods of employees? What are the commercial real estate owners and managers doing to ensure that their rent-paying clients will be able to keep staff on the premises when they are unable to flush toilets in March next year? What are Trustees of Bodies Corporate doing to protect the interests of owners in sectional title schemes on whose behalf they act? What are the administrators of hospitals and schools planning to do when the water runs out? What are food producers and distributors doing to ensure health and safety standards for their products when toilets cannot be flushed and hands cannot be washed?
In conclusion, let me nail my colours to the mast. It is my professional opinion that we are transitioning from the Business-as-Usual model where the state provided assurance of supply, to a new as yet ill-defined Business Unusual model – in which a failing state is no longer able to provide the most basic services for its citizens. This means that government is simply unable to do anything about it, so those waiting for some magical moment when leadership will emerge from Pretoria, like the US Cavalry coming to rescue a beleaguered force, are in for a surprise. Remember the Alamo. Remember Custer’s last stand at Little Bighorn. Remember Life Esidemeni. Remember Marikana. Remember Inkandla and Guptagate. The government simply does not care. (We forget far too easily it seems).
Furthermore, in my professional opinion, there is overwhelming scientific evidence to show that climate is changing, irrespective of what Donald Trump tells the world in a litany of angry tweets. Temperatures are rising, so evaporation is increasing and system yields are declining. Storms are becoming more violent, hail is increasing, but in the case of the Western Cape, cold fronts (that drive rainfall) are becoming weaker and less able to penetrate the continent. In fact, the Western Cape is one of six Mediterranean climatic zones in the world, and all are in distress for the very same reasons. A documentary film on this very topic is about to be made public, so watch that space. What this means is a New Normal as yet not understood by politicians and regulators.
Finally, I cannot see a future for commerce and industry in the Western Cape without three critical elements of a new water security strategy. These are the recovery of water from sewage, the desalination of seawater, and managed aquifer recharge (MAR). Significantly all use similar technologies. More importantly, if these are part of a strategic plan to mitigate risk in Business Unusual, then the timescales over which capital costs are amortised are not the 24-months currently embedded in the tender process logic. These technologies can provide water security at affordable prices ONLY if the capital repayment horizon is longer than 20 years. None of these technologies can be used for the mythical water security being sought if CAPEX has to be recovered over two years.
If you care about these issues, then please reflect on what I have said above. If you really believe that water is critical to social stability, economic prosperity, job creation and happiness, then consider sharing this article.
Let us see if we can create a movement that brings some technical robustness into decision-making that affects every citizen irrespective of race, culture, creed or social status. In short, water is far too important to be left in the hands of politicians that fail to understand the new reality they are dealing with, or regulators playing political games to undermine the viability of opposition parties.
Antony Turton is a water strategist