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“Water crisis” caused by multiple factors, says water expert
Author: Media & Communication, Faculty of Science
Published: 23/02/2017

If all Capetonians stood together and saved water, the water in our dams could last double the current predicted time-period.

So says Dr Willem de Clercq, a water researcher from the Stellenbosch University Water Institute (SUWI).

He says the current “water crisis” has been caused by multiple factors playing out at the same time: more people living in the city, climate change and general warming of the continent: “South Africa has experienced and survived many droughts in the past. While the current drought is not the most severe drought we have ever experienced, it is the first drought where we have to provide water to 54 million people.”

The City of Cape Town, for example, provides water to more than eight million people: “Two to three years ago, many of these people were water users in the rural areas. Over the past ten years the City of Cape Town’s annual water budget has more than doubled,” he explains.

“We are also in an era of large seasonal climatic instability, which is causing major problems in the agricultural sector in terms of employment. Export farmers are losing revenue and this means more people are moving from rural areas to the cities. We therefore have an enormous responsibility to take stewardship of our water resources and to manage this complex situation.”

He says the Western Cape Government and the City of Cape Town have so far done an excellent job. But they cannot succeed without the public’s support.

“The water levels in the dams cannot go lower than about 25%. When that happens, sludge-filled water will start moving through the systems. This causes all kinds of problems with maintenance of the pipe systems and municipalities’ ability to deliver clean drinking water to consumers. The water will taste foul and people will have to buy their drinking water,” he warns.

Dr de Clercq says there are numerous alternatives to improve the Western Cape’s ability to provide and store water, but it comes at a tremendous price. A desalination plant for Cape Town, for example, requires another power station.

“That money and time can be put to far better use for replanning our current storage and distribution systems and increasing their effectiveness.”

The City of Cape Town also has several backup plans. One of them is to pump water through the Du Toitskloof tunnel to Paarl and from there to Cape Town. Or to access groundwater resources: “The aquifers in our mountains store a tremendous amount of water, but using it will impact on plant and animal life. The City of Cape Town has, however, done extensive work to characterise these groundwater resources so that it can be put to use in times of crisis,” he adds.

However, the main concern remains people’s attitude towards water. All South Africans should realise that it is each and everybody’s responsibility to save water and to look after our water resources, he concludes.