Dam Empty

December 2015 was the hottest and driest in over a century. When one has grown up in a family of civil engineering constructors, dam builders at that, water awareness is in your bone marrow.  Warnings about a severe drought coming was ignored because the political leaders don’t listen to people.  In the process, the very lives of roughly four million people, also the economy that sustains them, have been placed at risk. A potential humanitarian crisis in the making.  I see this neglect as irresponsible and bordering upon criminal – to me, it makes Apartheid look small.

Our water reserves – the safe kitty in the life bank – was splurged on luxuries, not essential needs. Our leaders, in their acute ignorance, defied logic by letting dams run dry while there was a very clear pattern of reduced rainfall.

I so many times drove through poorer suburbs and saw how people collected water from a central tap, then leaving it wide open while purified drinking water was running down the streets, the next person carrying a plastic container still many metres away.  Be it such a water waster or the wealthy person watering the air above his lawn, wastage is wastage and a senseless act.

As I child, sitting quietly listening to conversations of the adults, afforded me a fairly good general knowledge and an understanding of how life works. Sadly, children are given electronic games and sent to play on their own, removing society’s corporate IQ from the next generations. Perhaps this is why senior officials of the City of Cape Town pardoned themselves by stating “there was no way that we could see this crises coming.”

Of course, they were so very wrong! The signs were very clear yet they lacked the insight of traditional wisdom.  City people who don’t understand nature. Scientists sometimes don’t see what basic people living close to nature, do.  To the latter, it comes natural, as they are experienced observers of natural trends. For example, scientists don’t understand why whales do “tail hopping” yet common fishermen do. In the same way, even farm hands saw the drought coming but, even in 2017, Cape Town Executive Mayor, Patricia De Lille, said that there was “no crisis.”

A tad over four million people live in the Western Cape of South Africa. Not just the City of Cape Town, but those living in rural areas also make use of water from, for instance, Vogelvlei Dam.

Coming from a culture where one stood upright in a bowl and washed down with a jug, where cars were sometimes dusted and not washed, toilets were only flushed when solids were deposited it has always been hard to see how water was wasted in suburbia. Water sprinklers on lush lawns, with taps opened too wide, maybe also with the usual wind blowing, up to ninety percent of that water ended up in the atmosphere!

Purified drinking water get used to flush toilets and water gardens. So many homes have swimming pools. Then, Cape Town’s water comes from mountains fairly far away from the city. When it rains in Cape Town, it doesn’t necessarily also rain in the catchment areas of our major dams.  These are:

  • Theewaterskloof  (a dam my late grandpa envisioned and proposed, planned but it was built after his death)
  • Vogelvlei Dam that also provides water to much of the Swartland and West Coast
  • The two Steenbras Dams
  • Wemmershoek Dam
  • Berg River Dam

The general level of ignorance as far as understanding water is concerned, is astounding. It seems that people show very little interest in their life-giving water and just assume there is much more, out there, somewhere.

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Section of Theewaterskloof Dam, July 11, 2017 – Photo credit P. Louw

Large expanses of where water used to dominate, now meet the eye. People are fooled into thinking there is no problem when they, as we did on June 9, 2017, drive across the Theewaterskloof Dam wall and see some water. To the untrained eye, it looks fairly good but then the observers most likely don’t know what the dam should have looked liked if much fuller.  As water flows into the dam, water levels don’t only go higher but also much, much wider. As hundreds of hectares now lie exposed, imagine the volume of water presently not in the dams.

The sand is too wet to be dredged out at this stage, as it forms an aquifer that also holds in water and protect it from evaporation.  Even deepening the dams won’t resolve anything, for these reasons:

  • The inlet to the water pipe is at a fixed height and water below that level simply cannot flow into it. The pipeline gravitates into a tunnel which cannot be lowered, so there would be no way to lift that quantity of water into the pipeline.
  • It would remove the sand holding the last bit of water
  • Moving that amount of earth would take many years, time we don’t have
  • Where will the mountain of soil be taken to?

Many people have arguments about water, but here is what needs to be done:

  • Ban the many swimming pools, lush gardens and car washes
  • Create a parallel system and use treated waste water for use in gardens, toilets, etc., while drinking water is supplied separately.
  • Step up water savings projects, in so many homes leaking toilet valves, etc., waste millions of litres of water per day. Go from house to house and cut off water where wastage is encountered, be totally strict.  Instill in people a fear as it is too easy to pay a fine.
  • We have the ocean around us, desalination for industrial use is much cheaper than producing drinking water; provide much of the drinking water from the Atlantic ocean that surrounds Cape Town and beyond.
  • Use aquifers but bear in mind that these will also dry up in the end.
  • There is no guarantee of ample rain; indications are that more drought is to come. Teach children at school, at tertiary level, educate the public. Inspire people to become water wise. Educate, educate, educate.
  • Policing water usage has never been done effectively; we need to see radical change in this.

About the springs and rivulets around the city, a Facebook user was advised as follows by the City of Cape Town (reprinted with permission.)

“Please be advised that the City has been aware of these springs off the Table Mountain range and has been utilising some of them in various forms for decades. The City is currently applying to the National Government to use these springs more extensively, and if this application to further harness these springs is successful, they will be used to offset the demand on our potable water resources, for the benefit of all residents.

In addition to further exploring options to utilise the springs around Table Mountain, the City has been studying the deep aquifer underlying the Cape Folded Mountain Belt (which essentially runs from Vanrhynsdorp to Mossel Bay) for more than 10 years to determine the best possible sites to be able to extract water viably and with minimal impact on the environment. This water will be abstracted to augment the potable water supply. We are nearing the end of the exploratory phase and are about to enter the pilot phase which will help us identify and confirm the locations and design of future production wellfields. The City chose to adopt a precautionary approach to the project in order to ensure that the integrity of the environment was not compromised. The allegation that ‘the municipality is sitting on this resource and busy arranging business interests to take over the management of some of these springs for private gain’ is pure fiction. The National Department of Water and Sanitation is the custodian of our country’s water resources, and ultimately decides on how water resources can and should be used by municipalities, agriculture and all other users of water.

The claim that harnessing this spring water could have prevented the water crisis is also unsubstantiated. The City’s studies show that the yield from these springs is not enough to offset the current drought. For example, the Oranjezicht spring source (mentioned in the post) flows out at approximately 2,77 million litres every 24 hours. However, this varies according to the season. Unrestricted peak summer demand from the City’s residents is currently approximately 1,05 – 1,15 billion litres per day. In order to preserve our water over the coming summer, we need to reduce this to 800 million litres per day – a reduction of 250 – 350 million litres. As such, even if the water from these springs had been licensed, it would not have made a significant difference. The suggestion that there is no ‘real’ water crisis is not true, and is very irresponsible during the current severe drought being experienced in the Western Cape and other parts of the country, in which the successful adherence to water restrictions is critical to ensure that our water supplies are protected. Thank you.”

We really need to start taking our water seriously and become educated on this subject.

Water Wars

He built the Fernkloof Dam at Hermanus. And a much bigger one in the Free State. Numerous very round ones all over the Overberg, on wheat farms. Several canals, pipelines, water works. And he shaved the tops of hills, cut canals and even a railroad through the forbidding rock of the Hex River Mountains. His last dam, he never saw. He did the initial surveying, drew up plans, wrote a proposal to Eben Dönges, MP. On his death bed in 1968, he was informed that “his dam” would be built. Within a week, Piet Marais was no more, a forgotten man, yet one whose visionary foresight affords the Western Cape life-giving water in 2017 and beyond.

Theewaterskloof. Oupa Piet’s final dam.

With water being scarce as it is, we South Africans are just very crazy. Precious, expensively treated drinking water turns our yards into lush gardens. Taking water for granted, we indulge,wasting copious amounts of water on non-essentials. In a country rated by some scientists as Africa’s second most water-stressed. An indulgence that is not sustainable.

We need to adapt. Oupa Piet taught us not to waste water, as he knew where it came from. He carried a lot of it. Trekking with ox-wagons, he traversed large parts of South Africa and formed a lasting legacy, sculpting rock faces with basic hand tools. The hot Karoo sun at Kleinstraat does not mix well with hammer and chisel. The cold can be arresting.

My other grandpa, Thys, also built a concrete dam in the Nieuwekloof between Tulbach and Gouda. Both were sub-contracted to canal building between the Little Berg River and Vogelvlei Dam. Oupa Thys also worked on expanding the same dam.

While two of my uncles worked on these projects, with hand tools, my father also worked at installing a pipeline from Stettynskloof Dam to Worcester and another from Fairie Glen. The latter is in the Brandwacht Mountains.

One of my uncles held a degree in theology but there was no work, so he laboured with pick and shovel in laying a pipeline to the industrial area of Worcester, where a textile factory was being erected.

This is typical of the spoils of white privilege in South Africa. Only some became financially independent, most still live in heavily mortgaged homes and drive encumbered cars. It is easy to appear wealthy,but hard work and unquestionable work ethics is our mainstay. Strikes and riots are alien to our culture, we are defined by sacrifice and perseverance.

Modern city dwellers usually do not realise that the catchment areas of our dams are on the semi-desert side of the mountain ranges skirting the Cape Peninsula. Rain in Cape Town simply does nit replenish our dams, with the exception of tiny ones behind Table Mountain or above Simon’s Town.

Recently, a chorus of idiotic voices went up, announcing that “the drought has been broken” after just a token rainfall occurred. It just shows how little understanding people have of water.

A mechanical engineer, a civil one and a dentist had to be educated that paying the fines imposed for water abuse still did not fill our dams, also it had to be explained to them that one cannot drink a garden or a clean car when dams run dry.

Civil rights organisation Afriforum charted freight trains to take water to the 150,000 or more residents of Kroonstad, when their water ran out in late 2016. It would be impossible to procure water and distribute it to the four million people of Greater Cape Town, though.

Grey water only saves water when replacing the use of fresh water for secondary use. Real water savings happen when we keep taps closed, it is that simple.

We need to learn to live like so many just outside of Cape Town do. Wash with minuscule quantities of water, using a jug and a bowl. I use much less than half a litre per day to wash my body with. And I do not smell.

Gardens in so many arid areas consist of barren land. That’s it. If you go on holiday to some destinations on the Cape West Coast, you take your own water supply. They have none to share.

In these regions, cars are seldom washed, if ever. A feather duster does the job.

Piping water from the Gariep is a ridiculous idea, as not much will be left for downstream human settlements and agriculture. We cannot take their precious water because we do not respect our own. The infrastructure will be costly and take many years to complete. To the very clever, ill-informed, there cannot be any foreseeable problem, of course. In the same way, water cannot be channeled from areas experiencing flash floods. The floods occur randomly in different places, impossible to predict. Laying costly pipelines that may only be used once in a decade, if at all, would be sheer stupidity. Too many people have opinions but don’t understand what they are talking about. No real understanding of the distances involved and unpredictability of such floods. They seem to want to play Russian roulette with pipelines or canals.

Dams can only be built in certain places. Soil types and topography dictate that. Already, some dams lose much water to seepage. We already have utilised almost all places where dams can be built.

Dredging sand from the now empty dams is another hotly debated topic. Firstly, that “dry” sand is an aquifer preventing too fast evaporation. Removing it will expose even more water to the sun and, worse still, to the wind. Secondly, due to the sheer magnitude as well as the wet nature thereof, even starting out is almost impossible. Earthmoving equipment will most likely get stuck, filling the dams with machinery by the time the rains come. Also, it may take a few years to move all that sand and silt, yet the dams will most likely fill up well before that can happen.

As for grey water – the municipality treats all sewage water, recycle it and uses it on the city’s gardens, golf courses, etc. It isn’t wasted BUT real water savings start by closing taps.

Given the witch hunt comments on social media, it becomes evident why it is predicted that WWIII will be fought over water.

Too many have opinions, too many are vindictive, too few know even the basics of hydrology or water supply.

Finally, it uses lots of water to generate electricity. Reducing the use of energy will save water. Switch off appliances when not in use. This also applies to unoccupied rooms. I grew up in a home where we never left a light burning when we left a room. And we had electricity for free when we did that.

Become water wise. Close taps. It never fails.