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Day Zero: Scare tactics, science and solutions

The City of Cape Town has come under significant criticism from civil society and concerned residents for its response to the worst drought the city has experienced in 100 years. Most notably are the accusations levelled against the City for its Day Zero predictions and preparations.

Day Zero is Cape Town’s imminent doomsday, the date the taps may run dry and residents begin queuing for water.

First announced by the City in 2017, the 2018 date for Day Zero has been changed numerous times – March, May, then forward to April, pushed back to June, and now to July 9.

Responding to the Day Zero determination and the City’s plans to alleviate strain on its water supply, critics have accused government of misleading and exploiting its citizens.

“We reject doomsday,” said Shaheed Mohammed, committee member of the Cape Town Water Crisis Coalition. “Day Zero was cooked up by the Democratic Alliance to privatise water”.

The Cape Town Water Crisis Coalition is made up of civil society organisations, concerned residents, workers, and faith-based organisations. “We are being held hostage and blackmailed to scare people into buying water,” said Mohammed.

The City’s “aggressive” installation of water management devices proved this, he said, adding that the installation was illegal and the products themselves lack South African Bureau of Standards (SABS)-approval. The City has refuted this claim, saying all devices meet the “required specifications”.

Mohammed predicts that the devices will eventually be converted to prepaid meters, like its electricity counterparts. Residents will have to purchase coupons before the City releases water. This, they say, is part of government’s profit making plans using the sale of water.

The City, however, is adamant that the devices, and the recent tariff increase, are a necessary part of its crisis management strategy.

Deputy Mayor Ian Nielson, who has taken the over management of the crisis after allegations of corruption were levelled against Mayor Patricia de Lille, said the tariffs were introduced to encourage the reduced consumption of water. He added that is was also to recoup the costs of operating and maintaining the water supply system during a time of reduced sales and consumption.

“No profit is made from the sale of water,” he said.

But the water management devices and tariffs are not the only red flags for the Water Crisis Coalition; so too is the determination of Day Zero.

“The formula is deficient and unscientific, and it has been this way right from the start,” said Mohammed.

The Coalition claimed that, “when [the DA] dreamt up Day Zero”, it had done so when the agricultural sector’s usage was at its peak. This meant the system of determination was, “flawed right from the beginning”. Mohammed said agriculture’s irrigation season ends at the same time every year and the City should have taken this into account for its calculations of Day Zero. Had it done so, Day Zero would have initially been set for later.

The Coalition sees this as a scare tactic, saying the City had chosen to depict the worst-case scenario rather than provide residents with the facts. In turn, tariffs were increased, and residents were encouraged to purchase bottled water.

While Nielson said the City’s approach was a conservative one, he maintained that, had government been too optimistic, it would have been too late to act come Day Zero. He added that the calculation to determine Day Zero is being reviewed and is likely to be adjusted in the coming weeks.

However, the University of Cape Town’s Dr Kevin Winter of the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science said the City’s determination approach is, in fact, based on the best data available.

“It includes evaporation, inflows, rainfall, outflows, and the dynamic of what the agricultural sector is doing in terms of preserving that water in the dams,” he said.

Winter added that his departmental team was running similar models with similar assumptions, often just a day out from the City’s date.

“So, I am not overly concerned [by the claim] that this has been a made up, fabricated idea or that the models are in fact ineffective,” he said.

Winter did however caution concern regarding the agricultural sector’s injection of water supply. In early February, the Groenland Water Users Association released between eight and 10-million cubic metres of water from private dams to help Cape Town.

While acknowledging the farmers’ “significant role”, Winter said that eventually, they were going to want their water back.

The agricultural sector’s own struggle to secure sufficient water and the ultimate need to recoup what it had donated, coupled with high evaporation rates and warmer conditions will inevitably bring forward Day Zero, said Winter.

It’s a day for which the City is inadequately prepared, according to the Coalition. Mohammed tabled a few suggested preventative measures.

First, was the adoption of smart irrigation. “You only water where it is needed,” said Mohammed.

With the predicted rainy season months away, Mohammed said the City and government had enough time to “pass a bylaw” and rollout smart, concentrated irrigation.

Another practical and urgent measure was fixing leaks. The Coalition said that while the City had fixed some of the leaking pipes, it was insufficient and infrequent. To counter this, Mohammed said the City needs a door-to-door campaign where they will check for leaks and use the many unemployed water technicians and plumbers to save thousands of milliliters of water per tap, per year.

On the other hand, the Coalition is against the drilling of the Cape Flats Aquifer, which is over 600 km2, sufficient to provide a third of Cape Town’s freshwater supply.

The Coalition said that in its steps toward the first drilling, the City had been negligent and failed to conduct crucial impact assessments, such as sea water seepage. The Coalition has therefore called on the City to immediately stop further borehole drilling.

Winter, on the other hand, said the Cape Flats aquifer provided the start of what would be a long learning experience in the adequate management of aquifers. He said management of the Cape Flats Aquifer was important in that bringing, injecting and infusing stormwater into the aquifer and keeping the water underground, was a good climate change strategy.

Winter and his team predicted that at least 30% of our water in the future could come from the Cape Flats aquifer.

Desalination, the City’s controversial solution that is set to begin in mid-March, is a definite no for the Coalition, saying it is harmful both to humans and the environment. Mohammed said that among the research from countries where desalination was already in use, it was evident that desalinated water, and its level of purification, posed an “attack” on human organs. Added to this was the pumping of brinelike waste into the ocean.

Winter, while not opposed to desalination as a long-term solution, cautioned against hurrying the process.

“I do not want to see a large investment in desalination at this stage,” he said.

Winter said there remained a long journey to understanding the capabilities of desalination plants, including their ability to extract and recover resources. Instead, Winter called for cost-effective ways of managing water in the interim, such as the “low hanging” rainwater harvesting as well as the pressing need to create more non-potable water.

“In the long run, if I look at five years down the track, desalination would have probably moved quite considerably in terms of the technology and desalination will save the City in the long run,” said Winter.

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