The water crisis is not over for everyone

More rain today in Cape Town. To be honest, we could all do with some summer now, but any complaints are tempered by the still very fresh memories of the recent drought.

Our dams are now up to 84.5% full, an incredible recovery from the time of that visit to Theewaterskloof just 20 months ago. Amazingly, Theewaterskloof itself cracked the 75% milestone this week. With all this good news, it would be reasonable to think that we were all in the clear now. And Cape Town pretty much is: for the moment at least.

It’s a different story just up the road though. I drove out to Montagu this week, where there hasn’t been any significant rainfall in 4 years. Much of the local economy is reliant on farming, and farming is reliant on water.

There is no water.

It’s hardly rocket surgery to work out implications of this situation. If farms can’t farm, there’s no money to spend locally, there’s no money to employ workers. Thus GDP drops, unemployment rises, poverty rises and brings with it increased drug/alcohol use, and with that, increased crime and health problems.

I was lucky enough to visit the Poortjieskloof Dam on the (currently misnamed) Grootrivier. Poortjieskloof supplies several of the farms in the area and has a capacity of 9.4million m³. That’s about one third the size of the Steenbras Upper dam that you drive over at the top of Sir Lowry’s Pass. i.e. it’s big.

It’s also almost completely empty.

The water that you can see there is little more than a metre deep, well below even the bottom of three outlet points on the dam wall. When full, it should be 33m deep, but even the lowest of the depth markers (4m) on the bank is way above the water level. It’s a shocking sight, and a reminder that we live in an urban-orientated, insular news bubble. While we are celebrating our deliverance from the infamous Day Zero, this dam – literally just 100km from Theewaterskloof – is on its last legs, along with the local community which depends so heavily upon it.

While I do understand that the climate is changing, I’m also aware that that is what climates do, and the amount of hype in the media leaves me cold. I’ve seen enough good science being manipulated to sell papers and get website clicks to just willingly believe everything I read. However, that said, if one takes this as an example of the implications of prolonged drought and its effect on a small community, extrapolation to a city the size of Cape Town is frankly terrifying. Whether or not you think that there is any anthropogenic effect on the climate is almost immaterial. The fact is that we’re clearly unable to deal with any robust change in our environment.

However, it’s not all bad news in this particular case. While I was visiting one of the local farms, their 170m deep borehole was completed and yielded its first water, which will hopefully at least allow them to save their trees in preparation for next year’s crop. This year has been a write off. Add the cost of drilling and pumping from a borehole onto a season with literally no income and you can see the desperate state that things are in.

I’m looking forward to going back and seeing healthier farms, a healthier local economy and happier faces next year. As for Poortjieskloof – that will require literally years and years of above average rainfall to get back to any significant level. And that seems very unlikely to happen at this stage.

Theewaterskloof not revisited

More amazing blogger professionalism here as I noted that it was (almost) a year ago when I took this group of pictures at the – then empty – Theewaterskloof Dam near Villiersdorp. Here’s the post.

It being (almost) one year on, it seems reasonable – essential, even – that I should return and do a comparison set of images. But I simply don’t have the time to fit that in, so you’ll just have to take my word for the fact that things are much improved from those worrying conditions of early February 2018. w

Today, Theewaterskloof stands at 48% full, compared to 14% when we visited last year. Overall, our dams are 62% full, compared to 27% this time last year. There are no worries about not having water in a couple of months time. All is good. All is moist.

There is a small, yet vocal, minority of individuals who still believe that the entire water crisis was simply a myth. They argue that it was merely a DA (our local ruling party) ploy to charge more money for water and to install Israeli-made water meters. There are two points that I would like to make to these people:

Firstly, that there is a small, yet vocal, minority of individuals who still believe that the moon landings were faked.
They are also wrong.

Secondly, supposing for just a moment that their allegations are correct (which they’re not); the sheer amount of effort to clandestinely remove billions and billions of litres of water over three years – enough to fool NASA (the same guys who faked the moon landings), prevent meaningful precipitation over a catchment area of 500 square kilometres (for Theewaterskloof alone) for 36 months and make news headlines worldwide surely deserves some sort of accolade?
Admit it: that is an incredible endeavour.

And for those thinking of switching their upcoming election vote away from the DA because of the way that they handled the crisis (and yes, it certainly wasn’t perfect), please make sure you choose to vote for a party which you genuinely believe could have managed it any better.
There’s suddenly not such a great selection any more, hey?

Drought news

Apparently it rained a lot in Cape Town while we were away.
Well, ok. If you say so. We’ve been back for five days now and we haven’t seen any continuation of that alleged precipitation. And, looking at the forecast for the next five days, there’s only a small chance of a little bit of drizzle on Monday evening as far as I can see.

That said, some local websites are full of good news about our local big reservoir “doubling in capacity”.

For the record, this hasn’t happened. There may be a case for suggesting that the volume of water in Theewaterskloof has doubled from the worryingly low levels earlier in the year, but I have to tell you that the capacity has stayed exactly the same.

Semantics. I know. Sorry.
Pop me in Pendant’s Corner.

Meanwhile, another blog helpfully tells us how this whole sorry situation  came about (it didn’t rain):

And how the reservoir “fought back from the brink” (it rained):

It’s fascinating, incisive stuff. But I do appreciate that it’s all a bit technical, so don’t worry if you’re struggling to keep up.
That’s why we have experts for this sort of thing. And that’s why they get paid the big bucks.

Don’t get me wrong though. No matter how shitty the reporting, it is great that we’ve moved forward from what we saw when we went out there in February.

But drought isn’t a purely Capetonian thing. Take a look at Sheffield’s local reservoir, which also supplies Derby, Nottingham and Leicester:

It’s looking scarily similar to scenes we’ve seen here recently. In the distance, you can see one of the towers of the Derwent Dam, which should look like this:

There’s a lot more dam wall on show in that top image than there should be.

Sheffield isn’t quite at the point of water restrictions yet, although other places in the UK are about to be (and Northern Ireland was, but isn’t any more).

As for Cape Town, our Level 6b water restrictions are still in place. We’re out of the woods, but we still can’t afford to be complacent. And the city council are going to ensure we remember that by charging us a ridiculous amount for the water that we use.

But I can understand their caution in not cutting the restrictions just yet. When they do, water use is inevitably going to spike and it would be seen as a huge own goal to have to reinstate the restrictions once they had relaxed them.

Perhaps what they should do is to double the capacity of all our dams.
That would make a huge difference.

As long as it rained.

 

Giving back

Many of us in Cape Town are trying our hardest to save water and adhere to the 50 litres per person per day limit imposed by the city council, and that’s to be applauded. But there is one family going above and beyond to help avert “Day Zero” when the city is set to become the first major developed city to run out of water.

This is their story.

__________________

Etienne van der Merwe wakes up each morning at 5:30am.

“I don’t need an alarm,” he tells me, “I’ve always been the sort of person that likes to get up and go.”

Etienne and his family, wife Hentie, and children Johan (18) and Charlize (15), live in a small but comfortable house in Durbanville in Cape Town’s Northern Suburbs. As I arrive, I note the dying plants and brown lawn. Like the rest of the population, the van der Merwes have been affected by the water crisis which is currently gripping the city. Three years of low rainfall, coupled with an alleged lack of foresight by the authorities have left Cape Town teetering on the brink of disaster.

“It’s been very difficult,” says Etienne. “But we are very fortunate to have access to clean running water anyway. There are many in our country who would consider this a luxury. I want to try to give something back.”

And that’s exactly what Etienne and his family are doing.

Each Monday morning, before sunrise, the taps in the van der Merwe household are turned on, and a total of 1400 litres  – 50 litres per person per day – is decanted into a collection of containers and drums in the kitchen and porch, before Etienne sends his son outside to turn off the water main again.

“This is more than enough water to get us through the week,” explains Hentie. “We wash with a skoppie en waslap [a basin and face cloth], we share the water, we flush the toilet once a day using rainwater when there is any, or greywater [water that they have used for washing] the rest of the time. It’s hard work, you need to be disciplined, but for some people, this is everyday life. We can manage.”

“Since we started this routine, we’ve never run out,” Etienne tells me proudly. “There’s always some left over at the end of the week.”

Etienne and Hentie van der Merwe

Many of the city’s residents are equally active in their efforts to save water, but it’s what the van der Merwes do each Sunday evening that makes their efforts so special. I join them on what has become a weekly pilgrimage.

It’s 4 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, and the van der Merwes have just returned from the afternoon service at their local church.

“It’s important that we keep faith, that we believe God will right this situation,” says Etienne. “People’s livelihoods and our society depend on it.”

He’s in the kitchen, moving the empty pans, pots, bottles and drums to one side.

“See here. This week we have almost 80 litres remaining this week. This is what we are giving back.”

I help him and Johan lift two full 25 litre containers and a collection of old soft drink bottles into the back of their bakkie [a pick-up or ute], and climb in. Hentie insists that I sit up front with Etienne, while she sits with her children in the back. Etienne pulls out onto the suburban road outside their house and heads for the freeway. We’re bound for Theewaterskloof, the largest dam in the region with a capacity of almost 500 billion litres, set in the mountains about 100km [63 miles] north-east of Cape Town.

The traffic is light, but Etienne’s pick-up has seen better days and the drive takes us  over an hour. We stop just outside the farming village of Villiersdorp on a viaduct over the reservoir. The view is shocking: what used to be a picturesque body of water is now little more than a stream surrounded by sand. The viaduct is made up of 12 arches. Only the centre arches now straddle the water. The strong wind whips up the dust from the extended banks of the dam, forcing us to shield our eyes.

The Theewaterskloof Dam bridge

The family stares grimly at the scene for a few moments.
“Each time we come here, there’s less water and more sand,” Charlize remarks, sadly.

Etienne and his son are dragging the containers out from the back of the truck, and between them, they lift the first one onto the concrete barrier on the side of the bridge, remove the cap and begin to pour the water back into the reservoir below.
It’s not an easy task, and the wind blows spray back into our faces and onto the road, but Etienne and Johan persevere and most of the contents of the container end up in the water below.

“It’s not much,” he admits, “but it’s something. If everyone in Cape Town could come and pour some water back into the reservoir, it would fill it back up. It would make a really big difference. I’ve already started to promote the idea in my local community, but people don’t take this situation seriously. They laugh at me and they say it’s a waste of time and effort. But I believe that we need to work together. This is my contribution.”

Having poured the family’s excess water back into the Theewaterskloof Dam, we head back to the van der Merwe home, where I bid farewell to this extraordinary family who are going to extraordinary lengths to save their community.

Later, sitting in my hotel room in the city centre, I resolve to do my bit as well by not having my usual cup of tea before bed.
And I have to say, it feels good to be making a difference, and suddenly I understand just how the van der Merwes must feel every day.

__________________

Story originally posted in UK Community Values magazine (January 2018).
Author: David Brooks.
Reproduced in full for the benefit of my South African readers. 

We went to Theewaterskloof

Theewaterskloof being the biggest dam supplying Cape Town with water.
And we weren’t alone. Because Drought Tourism is a thing.

Some TWK stats for you from Wikipedia:
Total capacity: 480 406 000 m³
(for lovers of comparisons, that’s about 15 times the size of Ladybower Reservoir in the UK)
Catchment area: 500 km²
Surface area: 5 059 ha

Of course, that’s what it should be like. It’s not like that at the moment.

Theewaterskloof is divided quite neatly into 2 halves by the R321 bridge.

Most of my photos (link below) were taken from near the red dot (just left of centre) on the map above. Those of the dam wall and associated infrastructure were taken near the green dot (bottom right).

And while there is still some water in the Eastern (lower) half, the Western (upper) half is one big – very big – sandpit. Of course, we knew this before we headed out there, but it was still a wholly shocking sight and nothing (including my photos, I fully admit) prepares you for – or allows you to grasp – the sheer scale of what you’re confronted with.

What you’re looking at here is the only water in the “top” half of the dam. The water is about 100m wide at its widest point, and that sounds ok, until you realise that the far side of the dam is over 5km away. Aside from that 100m strip, it’s all just sand. And laterally, there’s almost another 6km to the left that should also be covered in water. But there’s none. Nothing at all.

And everywhere you look, dead trees. Usually they’d be submerged, but they’re high, dry and seemingly petrified. It’s weird: very disconcerting, yet also strangely beautiful.
It’s like every photo you’ve seen from the Namibian Tourist Board.

I’m not going to be like that “vlogger” and tell you how much water we’re “losing” through the outflow from the dam wall, and how the coffee and chocolate farmers of the region are “stealing” “Cape Town’s water”.
I’m not going to ask you how much water you’re using: if you’re in Cape Town, you should know that already, and if you’re not in Cape Town, then it really doesn’t matter to me.
And I’m not expecting my photos or words to effect any change in anyone. If you’re not panicking even just a little bit by now, too few blue pixels on a computer screen aren’t going to make any difference to you.

But even for a realist like me, it was a very sobering sight.

On a more practical note, photography was incredibly difficult. The light was completely overwhelming, there was nowhere high nearby to get a decent vantage point, and what should have been water is now just a wide open space with no landmarks to get any sort of scale or perspective.
Even the Mavic up at 120m struggled to take it all in. No wonder NASA used a satellite.

Theewaterskloof is very, very big, and it’s very, very empty.
Consequently, it’s my humble opinion that we should all be very, very worried.

Photos on Flickr here. Video to follow.
And hey, if you’re the guy who chatted to me on the dam wall this afternoon and asked where he could see my drone photos, you made it. Welcome!