Earthlife Africa warned City of new millennium water crisis

EARTHLIFE Africa warned Cape Town of a water crisis over the new millennium as far back as 1991. While writing on environmental issues for the anti-apartheid press, I was lucky enough to interview both ELA members and the Dept of Water Affairs. Plans mooted back then, included tapping the Atlantis and Cape Flats aquifer, desalination, and “towing icebergs”. South Africa has a base in Antarctica, could towing an iceberg to Cape Town be the solution?.

Here is the story under my own byline.

Cape Town’s Water Crisis
Southside Environment, South Press January 16 – 22 1991
by David Robert Lewis

Cape Town could run out of fresh water by the year 2000 if the city’s scarce water resources are not managed more efficiently, say environmentalists.

According to a document released by Earthlife Africa, water consumption in the Western Cape is about 245 000 megalitres a year. It is estimated this figure will double by the year 2020.

City May be running on Empty, DR Lewis South 1991
South January 1991

The quest for alternative sources of water is a pressing issue, says the group, yet a lot of fresh water is going down the drain and into the sea. There are plans to bring water from the Berg River to supplement Cape Town’s dwindling supplies.

There is also the contentious prospect of the Lower Palmiet River Scheme which envisages putting the unique fynbos and potential tourist area in the Kogelberg mountains under water.

The area is one of the last intact fynbos strongholds.

A report drawn up by the Cape Nature Conservation Department cites the Kogelberg as a potential World Heritage Biosphere Park.

The damming of the Palmiet would not only destroy the Kogelberg and open the are to invasion by alien species, but would also infringe on some of the most productive farming land in the Cape.

At a public meeting held by the Department of Water Affairs last year, Mr Kobus Esrasmus, the department’s deputy director, conceded the Kogelberg area and the Palmiet estuary could be damaged by the department’s proposal to dam the Palmiet River.

But he gave an assurance the plan would not be implemented without “exhaustive public debate on all alternatives”.

Other options are the introduction of water-saving devices, tapping groundwater sources such as the Cape Flats and Atlantis acquifiers, reusing treated effluent, desalination and towing icebergs.

The Palmiet scheme would be the most economically viable, according to Mr Hennie Smit, planning engineer for the Department of Water Affairs.

Earthlife Africa has called on the city council to implement a “holistic, integrated water management plan for the South West Cape” and believes “the Kogelberg State forest should not be sacrificed in such a plan”.

They also indicated that sea pollution caused by the disposal of effluent as well as run-off from stormwater drains could not be examined in isolation.

All waste water ending up in the sea must be regarded as “throwing away a potential useful resource”, the group said.

A successful pilot water reclamation project using “treated waste waters” had been completed in Cape Town in 1986.

Although the cost of reclaiming water was high, a project report indicated improved technology “would significantly reduce the production cost of a full scale plant.”
It was further contended that the cost of fresh and reclaimed water would be similar in future.

Tapping groundwater aquifers could yield an additional volume of water. Paradoxically, pollution associated with the lack of sanitation in the Cape Flats and the lax water control standards for industrial areas, present the biggest hurdles to such a proposal.

This disregard for the integrity of natural water reserves in the region made a comprehensive water quality plan even more urgent.

According to Erasmus, a series of “public participation exercises” was being arranged by the department culminating in a major workshop where recommendations could be made to the government on the issue of water supply.

Desalination of seawater could in theory provided unlimited quantities of fresh water. The high cost would put such a scheme out of bounds until a cheap supply of energy was found.

It has been calculated that desalination plant capable of supplying Cape Town’s water needs over the next 10 years would require the output of a power station the size of Koeberg 1.

Desalination could be a viable option if introduced on a smaller scale in conjunction with other projects.

Implementing water-saving legislation would ultimately be the easiest and most economic way to alleviate the problems caused by the increase in population in Cape Town.

Providing incentives to industry to reduce their water use while making water-saving devices more economical would reduce the overall consumption of water.

Simple changes in lifestyle for those used to cheap and readily available water could result in extraordinary savings.

In one example given, a family of four showering instead of bathing could save three to four hundred litres of water a day.

Unfortunately, recent decisions such as the one to construct a new marine outfall pipe at Green Point leave little hope that wisdom will outweigh economic shortsightedness in determining the outcome of Cape Town’s water situation in the future.


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