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Perfect storm hits Western Cape

Online since 27.06.2018 • Filed under News & Views • From Issue 24 page(s) 18-19
Perfect storm hits Western Cape

The 2017/2018 season will be remembered as the year the Western Cape was rescued, ironically, by the same elements that started the water crisis – weather. Hopefully, by the time of publishing, the Western Cape will have been saved from drought by the return of a normal weather pattern.


Whilst many commentators, including this magazine, have pointed to the need to modify our consumption patterns and prevent water losses by using water more efficiently, in the end it is the mathematics that are not on our side. The crisis is also the effect of a perfect storm of events that played out to near disastrous consequences for SA’s legislative capital. The Cape Town metropole has a world-class infrastructure that was designed to provide a citizenry of 2,5 million people with more than enough water for their needs. Now, however, with population levels at 4.5 million, it is simple maths that the supply is inadequate to support almost double the population unless there is considerable investment in new infrastructure.


With the constitutional access to water of all persons a basic right, it is the national department responsible for water that has both budget and operational responsibility over water infrastructure. The second and third spheres of government have influence over the distribution and demand for water resources, but supply is firmly on the national government’s checklist. The fact that the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) was reportedly in disarray, as exposed by reports to Parliament as dysfunctional and lacking in governance during 2017 did not bode well for the city either. ‘The truth is, we don’t have a department,’ said Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts Chair, Themba Godi, following a disastrous appearance by water officials late in February. Two major water schemes running into billions are currently under investigation by the Special Investigating Unit due to suspected tender irregularities. [Daily Maverick, 28 Feb 2018]

This parlous state of affairs is clearly the third element of the perfect storm which also struck three of

South Africa’s provinces during the 2017/2018 drought season.


To Build visited the sites of two dams most affected by the drought, the Theewaterskloof Dam, which feeds the Cape Town area and the Clanwilliam Dam which keeps the town’s community and farming districts alive. At the time of viewing, both dams were arguably at their lowest ebb ever.


Theewaterskloof Dam

During February, the DWS began efforts to access what was referred to as the remaining 10% of water in the dam, which was considered undrawable. From a visit to the dam in April, the extent of the problem became evident; the pump station was isolated literally “high and dry” from isolated pockets of water on the bottom of the dam. Dead trees, still standing and other debris, including a formerly submerged tarred road, were visible from the bridge in the direction of Villiersdorp and Grabouw. Numerous pumps were busy transferring water from surrounding ponds into the main pump station abstraction area. Downstream, the wall of the dam was also exposed, but a significant remaining body of water lay in that area of the dam.


The DWS was reported to be constructing a coffer dam fed by canal from where the remaining body of water lay, to allow it to be fed to the abstraction point. By April, this was not noticeable, apart from the numerous pumps and water lines feeding the small catchment reservoir around the abstraction point.


Clanwilliam Dam

A subject of major concern to inhabitants of the Olifants River catchment area, notably Clanwilliam, has been the failure of the DWS to see through its commitment to upgrade the Clanwilliam Dam by raising its wall by 13 metres and doubling its capacity. Controversy arose when equipment and infrastructure, still visible from the road, was moved onto site during 2014 in line with a budgeted amount of R2-billion for the works. However, the process stalled, leaving both equipment and personnel stranded in Clanwilliam in a temporary construction village and in various accommodation establishments around town. The DWS spokesperson has not responded to an email query concerning the reasons for the stalled project, but various officials at the provincial level have commented.

‘For almost four years, 53 departmental staff members have been twiddling their thumbs in Clanwilliam, waiting for construction to start. The cost for their stay – for the month of February 2017 alone – according to a reply to a parliamentary question, was R2.5-million. This means that over four years, more than R100-million was wasted, while the regional economy declined due to a shortage of water,’ said Provincial Premier, Helen Zille. The eventual announcement by the newly appointed Minister of Water and Sanitation early in May that the project will resume shortly, was welcomed by all concerned. Anton Bredell, the Minister of Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning in the Western Cape, commented after a site visit with the relevant national minister, Minister Nkwinti, early in May: ‘I am very happy that the dam is back on the agenda. It has always been a priority project for the Western Cape and delays have severely impacted agriculture and residents along the lower Olifants river supply system. The dam wall urgently needs to be strengthened and raised and the benefits will be immense.’ ‘Once the project is complete, the capacity of the dam will be more than double. This is vital to secure water supply for farmers and residents, and to allow for up to 5 000 hectares of additional agricultural land to be irrigated and farmed by new emerging farmers in the Western Cape,’ Bredell added.

Bredell said the dam wall raising had previously been subject to long delays despite the department’s internal construction unit being set up on site from2014. ‘We’re hopeful that under the new DWS leadership the project can now proceed without any further delay,’ he added.


To Build comment: The problem with all of this is that the existing proposed upgrades to infrastructure are water under the bridge by now. With a burgeoning population and the realities of climate change, just what are the long-term plans of the authorities in terms of water catchment and supply? Surely an immense opportunity beckons, not only for coping with the challenges of drought, but also in the development of infrastructure, economic growth and employment opportunities, provided the projects are handled in an open and transparent way.

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