In 2018, the water crisis in Cape Town is much more severe than in previous years. Cape Town did not receive its normal winter rainfall, which left water reserves dangerously depleted as the city headed into the long, hot summer. Climate change is at the heart of the problem, but it seems that many do not see it that way. The changes in weather patterns have sent repeated warnings in recent years of impending drought, but those warnings have been largely ignored by leaders unwilling to face reality. We are all paying the price now.
In Cape Town, the first signs of trouble came in 2010. That's when we saw the first water restrictions. These were far too limited, however, to make a real dent in the situation. Some limitations were put on water usage for gardening and washing of vehicles. Beyond that nothing was done.
Around the same time a few people started using tanks to harvest rainwater. Others began harvesting gray water. In 2017, the local authorities required the posting of signs identifying people who were using recycled water on their property. The idea was to encourage conservation, but no inspections were done to ensure that these claims were accurate. Throughout the city tanks supposedly designated to be filled by rain water were, in fact, filled by homeowners from the local water supply. There was no sense of urgency in dealing with the situation.
Suddenly, reality struck. The government issued a "Day Zero" announcement. This meant that on May 1, 2018 the local government would turn off the residential water supply to all households in the city. We had gone from ignoring the problem to catastrophe.
Then just as suddenly we began to move the other direction. "Day Zero" was moved back to June 1, 2018. It has now been pushed back to 2019. How this is possible, when nothing of significance has been done to address the water shortage is unclear.
This year, as disaster loomed, everyone suddenly had ideas for "solutions" to the problem, although most seemed to be primarily money-making schemes. I attended a Water Crisis Solutions Summit this year, and was completely appalled at the fact that it was a matter of "tooting my own hooter" kind of a summit. True innovations were lacking; speakers were there to sell products and push their own agendas. Real solutions appeared to remain out of reach.
Much attention has been paid to the drilling of more wells. This will not solve the problem, it will make it worse. The water table around Cape Town is dropping, and it will continue to do so Already the cost of drilling a well is so high that only the rich can afford it. It now costs as much as 120,000 South African rand ($10,000) to drill and install a borehole. More and more wells are dug, and some people are making a lot of money, but the problem is not being solved.
Real conservation measures remain lacking. Fresh spring water from Table Mountain continues to flow through concrete tunnels freely into the sea. According to one report one spring alone dumps in excess of 2.4 million liters of potentially potable water, directly into the storm water system every single day.
At the height of the water crisis the sluice gates at the Theewaterskloof dam were left open. Every day precious water, so desperately needed by the city was lost. No effort was made to address the situation or formulate plans for conservation of this precious resource.
The use of fog nets and water-harvesting towers remains unexplored as well. Thick fog covers Table Mountain during summer, referred to locally as the "white tablecloth". This fog has the potential to produce large quantities of water for those living close by.
Fog nets, made of a fine woven mesh, stretched over a broad area would capture the water particles from the mist. The water droplets would run together downward into a trough that fed into a capture tank. Estimates are that each fog net installation could produce thousands of liters of fresh water each day.
Water towers, towers inside of which multiple fog nets are strung, would work in a similar way. Yet despite the promise of these technologies very little is being done to make them a reality.
There can be no life without water, but Cape Town leaders specifically seem to have no respect for this powerful resource. The smallest drop has no consideration of its value, and is lost forever. If there is no monetary value assigned to this new "gold," it has no meaning. It is not acceptable that such a precious and valuable resource is in the hands of ignorant officials, who do not really care about people, except for what they can gain monetarily from them.
The wealthy will find ways to get water, and a minority will always get rich by doing so. Meanwhile the poor and the vulnerable suffer. We are stumbling into a future in which only those who can afford water will have it. The ultimate essential commodity, on which life itself depends, will no longer be available to all. To avoid that reality, we need a government that will move aggressively and proactively to explore new technologies, to conserve existing supplies and to curtail the explosion of well drilling that is driving the water table ever downward.
Suddenly the city is inundated with conferences, such as the International Conference on Sanitation, Waste, and Water in November, the International Water Association's 2018 Water Loss Conference and The Water Institute of South Africa's biennial conference and exhibition. It will be interesting to read the papers introduced at these events and listen to the speakers. Will we see real solutions, or will we continue to see more of the same? Only time will tell, and we are running out of that.