Sustainability

What happens when there’s no water left?

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Water. The one topic that seems to be on every Capetonian’s lips right now.

And it’s hardly surprising – between naming and shaming those who do not comply with Level 3B restrictions, the daily tally of how many days we have till our dams run dry entirely and hourly reminders in the media of just how dire the situation really is, it’s difficult to escape the truth that we’re in real trouble.

At the end of February, we sent out our monthly newsletter with a note from CEO Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, looking at how an ongoing drought has affected Namibia’s economy and how it’s not far-fetched to imagine the same thing happening to us.

We received a flood of responses from readers almost instantly, expressing their concern and even sharing their own water-saving stories and tips.

It inspired us to delve a little deeper into the issue and ask the dreaded question: what will actually happen if/when the city runs out of water? Will the taps run dry? Will bottled water be rationed? Will we have to queue for our most basic and needed resource?

Worst case scenario

These are, of course, very worst case scenarios and, according to Dr. Kevin Winter from UCT’s Future Water Institute, highly unlikely.

“It is going to rain, but perhaps not significantly enough. So, what is likely to happen is the city will reduce the pressure greatly, slowing tap water to a mere trickle,” he explains.

If the taps do run dry, however, Winter says there will be chaos.

“Water will have to be trucked in to central points. You would have to allocate a certain amount of hours to stand in a queue and I guess it doesn’t take too much imagination to think of the implications.”

Apart from being an administrative nightmare, this sort of situation will also have a huge impact on the environment, human health, the economy and civil society.

In an article titled ‘When the taps run dry’, Winter breaks it down as follows:

Environment

Tall trees withering, dying and falling over, as well as lakes and rivers ceasing to flow are the first signs of the over-abstraction of groundwater. Domestic gardens are abandoned and become increasingly covered by hardened surfaces resulting in elevated urban temperatures.  Levels of dust particles rise and so do lower levels of atmospheric temperature. With an increase of contaminants in confined bodies of water, surface water quality deteriorates.

Human health

Impacts on human health become increasingly evident. The absence of clean drinking water and water for body washing results in dehydration, diarrhoea and related illnesses along with skin sores and malnutrition.

Economy

Small businesses and jobs are at risk and farmers struggle to maintain the land productively. Many become bankrupt and are forced to move into the city.

Places of work, schools, colleges and universities are severely disrupted by absenteeism as a result of illnesses and the avoidance of unpleasant sanitary conditions; and productivity is reduced.

Civil society

Of course, all of this has a severe impact on individuals in particular and civil society in general. Social tensions rise, as ‘the battle’ for clean water becomes ever-more real. Residents who can afford it, stock up on bottled water, which pushes prices up and availability down, while the poorest of the poor are left to the mercy of scheduled water delivery trucks.

Intolerance leads to flashpoints that bring other tensions to the fore, which could result in a rise of violence – whether in the form of crime, protest or even a small-scale civil war.

Drought as a wakeup call

Fortunately, at this stage, Cape Town is still safe from these extremes. However, we – both the City and the citizens – cannot afford to take a lax approach to saving water.

“I think this drought is a wake-up call and there is no doubt that the City and the Department of Water and Sanitation are going to bring some of the larger projects forward,” Winter says, adding that such plans definitely do exist, but that they will certainly be costly to implement.

Possible long-term plans

Desalination is one such long-term plan that seems to make sense to most Capetonians. And, in fact, the City has investigated the prospect of building a multibillion-rand plant on the north-west coast, but the plan was set aside (for now) when studies revealed that it would undoubtedly lead to a rise in water prices.

So, perhaps the answer lies somewhere a little less savoury. According to Winter, recycling sewage water – as they have started doing in Windhoek – may be the best option Cape Town has right now to take the pressure of potable water.

“It is expensive to distribute and requires a dual reticulation system, but it is an important step in managing the water that we have already got and improving efficiencies in treating this water,” he says.

If we were, however, to take a page out of the book of any other foreign city waging a similar war on drought, perhaps it should be Los Angeles – if for nothing else, their willingness to experiment with unconventional water-saving methods.

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(Shade balls in Ivanhoe Reservoir in Los Angeles. Photo: Junkyardsparkle/Wikimedia Commons)

The one that’s been making headlines over the past few days is the city turning its main reservoir into a giant ball pit, as National Geographic puts it.

A mass of 96 million 4-inch black plastic spheres, known as ‘shade balls’ have been emptied into the 175-acre reservoir, in the hope that they will assist in cooling the water, reducing evaporation and making it less susceptible to algae, bacterial growth, and chemical reactions that can produce harmful substances.

Costing only 36 cents each, the balls also could offer a solution that won’t exactly break the bank.

While no scientific evidence currently exists on the success of this project, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Inspirational water saving stories

Aquatrap

Long before drought and restrictions became bleeps on the radar of the general public, Cape Town-based designer Mark Algra had a water-saving vision. What if you could create an artificial water table by lining the ground below your garden with insulating materials such as plastic and rubber? Inspired by a similar method that had been implemented on golf courses in the desert areas of the US and had proven to save about 60% of the water normally used, Algra started experimenting with the upcycling of tyres. He managed to source sidewalls – of which the tread section had been used for making shoe soles – and glued a cut-open inner into the centre of each to create a solid rubber dish. The idea was, then, to place these Aquatraps one next to the other underground to form a rubber lining of sorts.

A number of school food gardens became the first to adopt this innovation and soon found that they were managing to save 50%-60% of the water normally used. In a video aired on SABC 1 in 2016, Algra also describes how growth rates doubled and even tripled at most of the test sites. In the meantime, Algra has introduced the Aquatrap Liner, which consists of a long strip of plastic shopping bags that have been cut in half and glued together at the handles. The holes formed by the handles, then, allow for drainage in a similar way to the small triangular gaps left between the solid rubber dishes.

While this is obviously a great method to employ in food gardens, it’s something that recreational gardeners can also experiment with in their backyards.

Massive household water savings from 2010-2017

As an avid gardener and a mindful citizen, Charl Marais from Welgelegen has been tracking his residential, monthly water usage faithfully for the past 20-odd years. While the original intention was just to keep a record of usage, his notes are now providing some important evidence of just how much water you can save when you really set your mind to it.

During January this year, the total water usage for the three-person Marais household was a mere 7 kilolitres, compared to 17 kilolitres recorded in 2016. While the 10 kilolitre drop may seem impressive (and it really is!), it becomes even more impressive when compared to the 56 kilolitres recorded for the same time period in 2010.

So, what is his secret?

“It really comes down to just paying closer attention to and being more economical about your water usage. For instance, we have buckets in the shower to catch excess water, which we then use to flush toilets and other household purposes. We also use smaller containers to collect water from the kitchen tap, while waiting for it to warm up for the dishes. Apart from that, I use the grey water from our washing machine to water the lawn … and it seems to be doing just fine,” he explains.

He adds that, while the dramatic drop in their water usage is something to be proud of, there are various factors to take into account.

“Water readings aren’t necessarily evenly spaced, so our January reading of 7 kilolitres was based on 28 days of usage, where the previous month was perhaps based on 33 days of usage. So, it’s just important to keep those kinds of factors in mind too, to better understand the fluctuations in your water usage.”

Geocentric CID management

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(Early morning rounds with the Geocentric water truck in Maitland CID. Photo: Gene L0hrentz)

Managing eight City Improvement Districts (CIDs) is no easy task, but it’s something Gene Lohrentz and the Geocentric team do with flair. Apart from keeping Strand CBD, Somerset West CBD,  Stikland Industrial, Tygervalley, Elsies River Industria, Maitland, Salt River and Glosderry clean and safe, they also believe in bringing an element of green to these largely industrial areas.

Despite the less-than-favourable drought conditions, Lohrentz and his team have managed to keep the gardens in the various CIDs happy and healthy using wellpoint water, sourced from his own home and distributed using the Geocentric water truck.

“The CIDs we manage mostly have pocket/container gardens, which also helps to make our water usage more efficient,” he explains.

This is, however, just the beginning of Lohrentz’s water efficiency plans for the CIDs he’s in charge of. Over the next few months, Geocentric is planning on rolling out a rainwater-harvesting project.

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(Example of the 1000-litre water tanks ready to be used at the Geocentric building in Elsies River Photo: Gene Lohrentz)

“Seeing that most of these CIDs comprise relatively large industrial areas, the large surface areas of the buildings can help us harvest a good deal of rainwater without too much effort,” he says.

The plan is to install 1000-litre tanks at various buildings, starting in Elsies River and then spreading to the other CIDs systematically. This water will then be repurposed to serve a number of different purposes, including keeping the gardens green.

Disaster area declaration on the cards?

Despite these individual efforts to go above and beyond Level 3B restrictions, there are still round 20 000 excessive water users hindering the City’s ability to reach the reduced target of 700 million litres a day, with the latest figure standing at 837 million litres.

Dam levels are now at a dire 33% and Mayor Patricia de Lille has announced her intentions to ask Western Cape Environment MEC Anton Bredell to declare Cape Town a disaster area, so that emergency measures can be put into place.

According to a report by News24, these would include treating waste water even further to put it in the potable system, drawing water from the Table Mountain Group Aquifer and the Cape Flats Aquifer, and in the long term, that ambitious R15bn desalination project with Eskom that would cost R1.2bn in operating expenditure.

In the meantime, De Lille has emphasised once more that the City is indeed in crisis and that the only way out, is if every single citizen pulls their weight.

And, as the inspirational water saving stories above prove, it’s really not that hard.

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