What about the day after Day Zero?

Panicked Capetonians are asking the wrong question. The issue is not when Day Zero will see their taps turned off. That won’t happen this winter. They should be asking: What will happen next summer?

We know that it will rain over the Western Cape over the next few months. What we don’t know is where, when and how much rain will fall.

When Day Zero was still set to be reached on April 12, Accuweather forecast that the city’s first big rains of the season would start on … April  12. With remarkable precision, they predicted that 19mm would fall on that day, with 13mm and 10mm on following days. That internet forecast is almost certainly wrong. Indeed, two weeks later, it had been completely changed — at the time of writing, only 5mm is forecast for the whole of April.

Even the best weather services are pleased if their five-day forecasts are reasonably accurate. Climatological science suggests that 15 days may be the outer limit of what may be achieved in the future. Forecasts for longer periods are simply guesswork and are deeply misleading and distract people from the real issue: we have to live with weather that is not predictable.

So what can we say about the day after Day Zero? And what will that mean for the people of Cape Town?

The starting point is to admit that we don’t know — the future is just too uncertain. All that technicians like me can do is offer a range of scenarios — good, bad and average. And we can suggest how to cope with each.

The best case would see the Cape Peninsula enjoy good early rains that continue right through winter. In an exceptional year, this might even fill dams to their “normal” levels. That’s what happened in Gauteng last year when the tail end of Cyclone Dineo refilled the Vaal systems’ dams in just a few days.

The worst case will see the drought continue. If the coming winter rainy season is as dry as the last one, dam levels will go up but not by very much. They will start the 2018 summer significantly lower than they were in 2017.

Even if there are good rains, Cape Town will probably have to continue to restrict supplies. The city needs more water than its existing dams can supply. Current emergency efforts to get more water from boreholes and water reuse (and a few small and very expensive temporary desalination plants) are unlikely to provide enough.

The technicians currently estimate that, at best, they will have an extra 150 megalitres a day of new supply when summer starts. They need 250 megalitres a day before they can be comfortable, even if the dams are back to normal. Before the crisis, Cape Town’s daily consumption was reaching 1 200 megalitres a day.


So, even in the best case, citizens are likely to spend the summer of 2018-2019 with water restrictions but perhaps not as acute as at present.

In the worst case — another dry winter — the city will remain on the brink of disaster. Together with a trickle from the dams, the new sources will only maintain supply at existing levels, less than half the pre-drought normal. Drastic restrictions will have to be maintained, agriculture will be cut back further, jobs will be lost and the tourist industry will have another disastrous season. It could still reach the point where people have to queue in the streets.

Only by the summer of 2019-2020 is the city likely to have an efficient, permanent desalination plant running. This could provide an additional 100 or 150 megalitres a day. Together with the expected supplies from groundwater and water reuse, this will allow the city to scrape through if it suffers another serious drought, although, even then, restrictions will still probably have to be imposed while dam levels are restored.

At that point, if the experience of Australia and Spain is anything to go by, there will be a decade of good rains. Nature has a cruel sense of humour. When those countries invested billions in desalination to deal with drought emergencies, the desalination plants were hardly used in the following years.

What Water Affairs and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane calls the “new normal” is hardly novel. Cape Town is continuing a long history of procrastination followed by unpleasant climate surprises. A century ago, when the city’s Table Mountain springs no longer provided enough to meet citizens’ needs, the local village councils dithered about what to do next. A drought emergency finally persuaded them to co-operate to build the Steenbras Dam. “Will it come to this?” asked cartoons at the time, picturing queues of Capetonians with buckets.

The rest of the country should learn from Cape Town to be prepared. Don’t take chances with your water supplies. If Cape Town had taken the guidance of the National Development Plan, which recommended in 2012 that it should develop groundwater supplies and wastewater reuse by 2017, there would be less drama today. Although Western Cape Premier Helen Zille says the cost of such early investment would have been excessive, it would have been a very cheap insurance policy given the scale of losses that they are currently suffering.

So learn from their mistakes; don’t repeat them. Use your water wisely but keep paying those insurance premiums — invest in the right infrastructure, at the right time.

Mike Muller is a visiting adjunct professor at the Wits School of Governance. A professional engineer, he was also director general of the water affairs department from 1997 to 2005 and a member of the National Planning Commission from 2010 to 2015

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Mike Muller A
Guest Author
Second Look Author
Guest Author
Advertising

Where is the deputy president?

David Mabuza is hard at work — it’s just not taking place in the public eye. The rumblings and discussion in the ANC are about factions in the ruling party, succession and ousting him

Zuma turns on judiciary as trial nears

Former president says pre-trial correspondence is part of another plot

SANDF inquiry clears soldiers of the death of Collins Khosa

The board of inquiry also found that it was Khosa and his brother-in-law Thabiso Muvhango who caused the altercation with the defence force members

Lockdown relief scheme payouts to employees tops R14-billion

Now employers and employees can apply to the Unemployment Insurance Fund for relief scheme payments
Advertising

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday