As of noon on Monday, virtually every domestic borehole user in the Western Cape started to break a rule that was, at the time, less than 72 hours old.
While the potential consequences for these residential users are neither clear nor seem imminent, existing rules mean their agricultural counterparts could face up to five years in jail for the same breach. And though the department of water and sanitation says it is not looking to send anyone to prison just yet, that may not help when it comes to future disaster relief.
On January 12 the department published a notice in the Government Gazette to tighten water restrictions in the Breede-Gourtiz and Berg-Olifants catchment areas, which between them correlate to the political boundaries of the Western Cape. The curtailments were the same as those first imposed in December last year: 45% for homes and industry, and 60% for agriculture. There was one crucial difference, though. The new restrictions were on “taking water from groundwater resources” rather than the use of water.
That made things complicated.
Groundwater was made a national, rather than private asset in 1998, yet there is still no national requirement for domestic borehole users to apply for water usage licences or monitor their use. City bylaws, such as those in force in Cape Town, may require that a local government be notified that a borehole is in use, mainly to avoid fines for violating water restrictions. Even then, under Cape Town’s current restrictions, there is no requirement to monitor borehole use — or limit it in any way. Instead residents are merely “strongly discouraged” from using boreholes to water lawns or fill swimming pools.
On January 12, however, the water department decreed that everyone in the Western Cape, specifically individual groundwater users, had to install “electronic water recording, monitoring or measuring devices”. There was no deadline for doing so but the first set of resulting measurements had to be emailed to the department before noon on Monday.
These users were also required to reduce their usage by 45% against a five-year average usage up to February 2015, even though they are unlikely to have such records.
“I don’t know any [domestic user] who monitors their usage,” a borehole driller in the Western Cape told the Mail & Guardian. “It is complicated. It is expensive. Why would you do it?”
Various experts laughed at the idea that such monitoring could be implemented over the course of a weekend, variously citing a shortage of meters to install and installers to install them, even discounting problems of money and awareness.
“It depends on the install, but you are looking at between R3 000 and R10 000 per borehole,” said one installer, before pointing out that January “is the poorest month”.
A week before the new regulations were gazetted, industry association AgriSA pledged in a high-level meeting with the government to do everything it could to mitigate the Western Cape water crisis and push out Cape Town’s “day zero”. Agriculture is entirely committed to sustainable water use, said AgriSA president Dan Kriek this week, and compliance with restrictions is not negotiable.
But the implementation of the new borehole regulations is difficult, said AgriSA’s head of natural resources Janse Rabie, starting with the prohibitive cost for farmers already struggling in a drought.
“We don’t know what qualifies as an electronic meter,” said Rabie. “Does a home-made meter qualify? What happens with boreholes sunk after 2015, how much can you abstract when you don’t have the five-year average against which to calculate the restriction?”
Meanwhile, said Rabie, farmers were worried that their failure to submit borehole usage numbers may make them ineligible for disaster relief or soft funding to help with recovery after the drought ends. There are also the standard provisions in insurance contracts and loans that require full compliance with all laws and regulations.
“Right now a lot of people are already in breach of those,” said Rabie.
The severity of the drought in the Western Cape made it necessary to both explore groundwater resources and tighten compliance around its use, said water department spokesperson Sputnik Ratau on Wednesday. That does not mean immediate inspections, though.
“When we do our compliance monitoring the basis is to encourage people to come to a point of compliance,” he said. “Initially we work with them towards attaining compliance. If then they do not comply beyond that, we have a track record that we tried to assist them.”
Water monitoring regulations for agricultural users, published in February last year, require tamper-proof measurement devices to be installed at the expense of users. These must be verified as accurate at least every five years, and records must be kept for five years.
Failure to comply with the regulations carry an unspecified fine, or up to five years in jail.