Ancient water could solve modern crisis in Cape Town

A leper who once lived on Table Mountain was tasked by colonial settlers with keeping open the sluices, built by the Dutch East India Company in the late 1600s, from the Camissa, directing fresh water to ships docking in Table Bay.

By the 1800s, the British had included sand filters and, with a series of canals, was providing clean water to the burgeoning colony.

Remnants of the filters remain, though they are now crumbling. These days, religious groups use the “sacred” water to perform ceremonies, and Rastafarians camp out for days along one of the streams in the Camissa water system.

Now local environmental activist Caron von Zeil is calling on the City of Cape Town to turn to the Camissa to help to ease the water crisis.

[Researcher Caron von Zeil wants the city to harvest the water that runs off Table Mountain before it flows into the ocean. (David Harrison)]

Table Mountain has four underground rivers and 36 streams, Von Zeil says. Water from rainfall on Table Mountain is caught up in cracks in the shattered shale below the granite and sandstone, and flows down to the city. Some of it ends up at the Castle of Good Hope before it flows into the sea.

[Water runs off Table Mountain before it flows into the ocean. (David Harrison)]

“I have managed to locate 32 out of a known 36 streams. Of those 32, I have been monitoring a number of them, collecting water with a bucket. In some cases, I have been able to test the samples, along with a number of professionals who are supporting our cause.”

Camissa is derived from the Khoi Khoi dialect and means “place of sweet waters”. The city bowl area was named Xhamissa, according to the archives, by these ancient residents of the Cape. The archives show that they relied on the water system.

The Cape’s first war was fought over water. The Dutch East India Company troops at first negotiated with the Khoi Khoi for access to the streams, then later fought them for complete control of the natural resource.

On a Saturday morning, Von Zeil and other water activists trek up Table Mountain to trace the Platteklip stream and Silwerstroom to establish how much water there is and to assess how to harvest it.

[The ruins of a stone ‘dam’ built during the colonial era. (David Harrison)]

She hasn’t quantified the amount of water in the Camissa system but the extent of the biggest stream, Stadsfontein, so impressed city authorities that, in September last year, it installed purification tanks and started feeding water to its Molteno reservoir in Oranjezicht.

“The city is harvesting 277-million litres a month. And that’s straight from Table Mountain,” Von Zeil says.

The city is also drawing water from the Leeuwenhof stream on Table Mountain but has not disclosed how much water it is collecting.

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille acknowledged the potential of these streams on social media. “To all posting on Reclaim Camissa. It is an excellent initiative … Engineering costs and logistics huge in proportion to water yield but progressing,” she wrote on Twitter.

Before Von Zeil begins the trek up the mountain, she displays maps detailing the water system, which runs down Table Mountain through a warren of tunnels before ending up in the sea. The tunnels were built in the 1800s by colonial settlers who channelled the water to the castle, where it was collected.

“As soon as the water from the streams gets into the tunnels, it’s mixed with sewage water and becomes contaminated,” she says.

The maps were drawn up as part of Von Zeil’s masters thesis at the University of Cape Town, where she developed the Reclaim Camissa initiative. They form part of a hydro-social framework that sets out the potential water use and how to “reconnect the ecosystem between the mountain and the ocean”, she says. 

She was able to collect this data by researching the soil and old economic centres in the city.

“From that I was able to draw up a series of 12 maps, that is everything to do with water. Where the water lies, the groundwater, the surface water exists, but also where the old water infrastructure exists and where we can bring people back into those places,” she says.

Centuries of colonialism lie buried beneath the topsoil that now covers the Table Mountain foothills. Along the trek, Von Zeil stops to pick up old pieces of porcelain.

A colonial-era water storage facility made of round stone and built into the mountainside still stands, dilapidated, alongside the Silwerstroom, which carries groundwater.

The stream trickles between the limestone and through the sand before connecting with the Platteklip stream, which crashes down the flat granite stone that channels rainwater.

The rock pools, which held clear water less than three years ago along Silwerstroom, are now filled with sand and mud, and the point where the two streams meet is now overgrown with reeds.

Five hundred meters below, a Rastafarian man washes his laundry while bathing with a woman in the river created by the two streams. “What are you guys doing here?” he asks. “We not used to people coming here any more.” His campsite is only metres away from a disused water filter made of sand and stone.

“This is how the City of London purifies its water. They still do it,” Von Zeil says, pointing to two pits overgrown with shrubs and vandalised with spray cans.

“It would cost about R1-million to refurbish this and add 800 cubic metres of water to the system every 24 hours, but the government hasn’t come back to us,” Von Zeil says.

But the City of Cape Town water and sanitation director, Farouk Robertson, says the Camissa water system simply doesn’t hold enough water to prevent Day Zero.

“We have made a significant contribution by accessing the Stadsfontein steam but it isn’t even enough for one day, because we’re using half a million litres per day,” he says.

Von Zeil’s goal is the establishment of a “mountain-to-sea ecosystem”.

“Basically you would be able to walk from the mountain to the ocean, or vice versa, in a system that your children can be safe and there won’t be any interference from cars or industry,” she says.

But a major stumbling block to achieving this vision remains the colonial-era tunnels, which have significantly dropped water levels downstream and compromised the quality of the fresh mountain water, Von Zeil says.

Water and waste services mayoral committee member Xanthea Limberg says at least 8.8-million litres of water are flowing to the sea every day, and Zille says the province is exploring the cost of utilising the springs.

Von Zeil plans to include her 14-year study in her doctoral thesis at UCT this year, in which she hopes she will be able to estimate how much water Table Mountain holds and how to harvest its full potential.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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