INTERVIEW | CAPE TOWN 

Drought: City answers your questions

Ian Neilson, JP Smith and Priya Reddy respond to readers’ questions

Photo of drilling into Cape Flats aquifer
The City has started drilling operations for groundwater from the Cape Flats aquifer in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks
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We asked readers to send questions about the water crisis for the City of Cape Town to answer. We selected and edited the best ones. Ian Neilson (Deputy Mayor), JP Smith (Mayco Member for Safety & Security and Social Services) and Priya Reddy (Director of Communications) responded.

When will a detailed policy and operational plan be published on the Day Zero water collection points?

JP Smith: It must be emphasised that this plan covers more than just the establishment and operation of the water collection points. Much work has been done and the plan is subject to frequent updating in what is a very dynamic environment. Weekly briefings will be held going forward.

If we want this Disaster Plan to be adopted with as little risk and inconvenience as possible, we need to look to the local context of each water distribution point. We need to anticipate what strategies households and businesses will employ to meet their water needs in the case of Day Zero – and how we can support these strategies instead of frustrating them. We need to design and manage these collection points in a way that makes sense. It is essential that our approach is flexible enough to maximise efficiency as far as possible. There are some operational details of the water collection points which will undergo continuous refinement right up until Day Zero.

In order to ensure effective implementation the Disaster Risk Management Team is labouring over questions such as:

  • What range and size of containers will people choose to use;
  • how will they carry these containers to and from the standpipe;
  • what time of day will they come to the collection point;
  • what transport will they opt to use to and from the collection point;
  • how will families and neighbours organise themselves to collect water in a way that makes sense;
  • who within the household or business will be designated to collect water and for how many people will they collect.

For the next two months we will be troubleshooting each water collection point so that if Day Zero arrives, people are able to collect water as quickly and safely as possible.

The one thing that is certain is that even if these water collection points run as smoothly as possible, the act of collecting water will be a massive inconvenience for Capetonians. If we don’t want to queue, we will all need to save water now.​

Is it ok to use sea water to flush toilets?

Ian Neilson: In general, the City does not encourage the large-scale household-level flushing of toilets with sea water. It could corrode parts of the reticulation infrastructure and our wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to handle high salinity. As far as possible, residents are encouraged to use appropriate greywater and alternative sources, such as from boreholes, to flush toilets.

As alternative resources could diminish due to usage limits, the City will flush the sewerage system at appropriate points. This forms part of the comprehensive operational plan that the City is developing. Highly experienced and qualified engineers are working hard at putting measures in place that will ensure the system continues functioning as far as possible in the event of Day Zero occurring, to safeguard both public health and the infrastructure.

We are all having to reassess our relationship with water, and the City supports the move by residents to explore more sustainable water-wise technologies such as composting/waterless toilets.

After Day Zero can we still use flush toilets if we flush with greywater? Or will the sewage system get clogged up due to lack of water? As a follow-up, what are the recommendations for toilet use following Day Zero?

Ian Neilson: Yes. Appropriate greywater and alternative sources can be used to flush toilets.

Also see answer to the question above.

Has the map for day zero cut off areas been finalized? Has the city published it?

JP Smith: We will be providing more information on the points of distribution at a press briefing on 27 January 2018. At the moment 149 of the 200 sites have been confirmed and we will be erecting signage at these points within the coming weeks so that persons in these communities are aware of where their collection point will be situated.

These collection points will contain sections for pedestrian and vehicular collections in order to maximise efficiency as much as possible.​

What are businesses going to do that rely on water e.g. all the restaurants etc. If they are forced to close the economic impacts will be enormous.

JP Smith: Strategic commercial areas, high-density areas with significant risk of increased burden of disease, such as informal settlements, and critical services, such as hospitals, old age homes, prisons, hospitals, fire stations, police stations, clinics, children homes, where possible, will continue to receive drinking water through normal channels. Significant monitoring and enforcement will be put in place to ensure that water usage at these points is significantly reduced.

We are engaging with as many of these organisations as possible to work out what will be the best way to meet their water needs in a Day Zero scenario. The crisis that we face requires a whole of society approach. We will be discussing what strategies organisations such as this will employ to meet their water needs in the case of Day Zero – and how we can support these strategies in our planning and implementation of the Water Disaster Plan.

How advanced are plans to use large scale desalination? How much water will desalination eventually bring online, and by when? Will these desalination plants be powered with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind?

Ian Neilson: Our modular reverse osmosis desalination plants are designed to have the smallest ecological footprint possible. An inter-governmental environmental monitoring team is also in place to monitor all projects.

The V&A desalination plant (two million litres per day) is planned to start producing water by March/April 2018. We are still on track for this.

The Strandfontein plant (seven million litres per day) is due to start producing water from March 2018.

The Monwabisi plant (seven million litres per day) has been delayed to facilitate further community engagement in the area. The plant was due to start producing water by February, but four weeks of construction time has been lost to date. With the support of the community, the City is all hands on deck to get this project going again and to make up for delays.

Any desalination plant contracts awarded to contractors as part of the City’s Emergency Water Augmentation Scheme will be required to deliver water that must meet South African National Standards (SANS 241:2015) requirements. These are the standards set nationally for drinking water quality. The City has a proud record of always meeting these standards. The desalination plants will have online monitoring equipment installed to check the efficacy of the desalination process and adherence to the SANS standard.

After advice from the World Bank, the City shifted focus from desalination to optimising the use of aquifers in the short-term, as this is more cost effective and quicker to implement than temporary desalination plants.

The Cape Flats aquifer will deliver 80 million litres per day, the Table Mountain Group aquifer will deliver 40 million litres per day, and the Atlantis aquifer will deliver 30 million litres per day over 2017/18 and 2019/20.

The groundwater abstraction projects form part of the City’s programme to supply additional water from desalination, water recycling and groundwater abstraction.

Abstracting groundwater in bigger volumes means that the City can deliver more water at a lower cost for the benefit of all residents of Cape Town.

In the past few days statements have been released by the mayor, the deputy-mayor, the premier and the head of the DA. These statements are sometimes inconsistent, and all give the impression of being in charge. Who is in charge of the crisis? The mayor? The Deputy-Mayor? The Premier? And do any of them have expertise in the problem?

Priya Reddy: From a City of Cape Town political leadership point of view, and as per the Council resolution taken on Friday 19 January 2018, the Executive Deputy Mayor, Alderman Ian Neilson, who is a professional hydrological engineer by trade with a Master’s degree in engineering; and the Mayoral Committee Member for Informal Settlements, Water and Waste Services; and Energy, Councillor Xanthea Limberg, have been delegated by City Council to take the political lead for water.

From a City administration point of view, Dr Gisela Kaiser, the Executive Director of Water and Sanitation and also the City’s designated Chief Resilience Officer, and an engineer by profession; as well as Peter Flower, the Director of Water and Sanitation, and an engineer by profession; in conjunction with the City’s executive management team, are the administrative principals.

They are supported by a myriad of engineers, project managers and other professional officers who are working tirelessly to get Cape Town though this unprecedented drought.

Is a committee of experts being set up to deal with Cape Town’s water problems? Who is it? When? And will the person who leads it be the main communicator to the public?

Ian Neilson: The City has a water resilience task team in place which consists of experts in water management and resilience. In addition, the City is supported by a Section 80 committee, whose meetings are open to the public, and which includes experts from the private sector, universities and civil society, among others.

There have been media reports on new borehole regulations. And many people are now getting boreholes (or wellpoints) installed. What are the rules on this (have they changed recently)? Are there serious consequences of too many people using wellpoints or boreholes? Can borehole water be used for flushing, bathing, dishwashing and laundry?

Ian Neilson: Firstly, the City does not regulate borehole usage. The custodian of water resources is the National Department of Water and Sanitation. But the City has, in the implementation of previous water restrictions, encouraged conservative usage of borehole water. We have recommended limited usage in accordance with water restrictions for municipally-supplied drinking water. Our soon to be implemented Level 6b restrictions make further recommendations for the use of boreholes. It is not in the City’s mandate to regulate the usage of groundwater sources, but we have tried as far as possible to drive the message home that unlimited usage of boreholes will not be sustainable. The main consideration here is that private boreholes are not recharged. Private users do not replace the underground water that is used. This is in contrast to the City’s aquifer programme, where aquifer recharge will be a non-negotiable aspect of abstraction.

Our goal is not only to survive the drought and to thrive despite it, but to change our relationship with water.

We advocate for the sustainable use of borehole water for indoor purposes but we do not support the use of borehole water for outdoor purposes, such as gardening.

The National Department of Water and Sanitation should also please be approached for information on their borehole management efforts.

Why has the city not (substantially) reduced pressure on water? Would this result in some areas being cut off? But then can’t special provisions be made for these areas in the meanwhile?

Ian Neilson: The City has in fact been substantially reducing water pressure since March 2017. Our engineers have been reducing water pressure in the bulk pipes at our reservoirs as well as in the reticulation network that feeds our households. Much of this work has been an engineering-first.

Water flows to a property because of the action of water pressure. For the water to reach different areas, pressure must be managed. This is done by controlling the flow of water to every area in the city. Some areas in the city are located at lower points, while others are located higher up. Water, like everything else, is bound by the laws of gravity. So, it will either flow downwards or it will remain at the same level. If we want it to get to higher-lying areas, or properties located on high ground or into tall buildings, we need to use valves and pumps to get it to those areas.

To get through this drought, there are water restrictions and water usage limits in place. We then provide the allowable water to an area. If everyone stays within their daily usage limit, households should not be affected by rationing. But if people in a lower-lying area do not stick to this allocation, people in higher-lying areas are affected. Even with reduced pressure, lower-lying areas will have water as it flows easier because of gravity. But, if the flow is reduced, the water does not have sufficient pressure to flow to higher-lying areas or buildings.

That is why tall buildings and higher-lying areas will often be affected by pressure management. Some areas will not have water.

The City’s water reticulation network provides water at pressures between 2.4 and 9 bar.

Operational staff have lowered the pressures across the City but the intention is to keep the system pressurised (keep water flowing). This is because a lot of damage could be done if we switch off this pressure system entirely.

High-rise buildings and dwellings located 10m or higher than road level will be impacted indefinitely but theoretically everyone living at ground level should have water supply at their metered connection.

However, when many users draw water at once, a peak in the demand is created. This happens when, for example, people tend to do laundry in the morning or shower at more or less the same time during the day. This peak (typically between 5am and 9am and between 5pm and 9pm) will draw down the system creating a temporary outage. In this case the system should recover once the demand decreases, i.e. after the washing is on the line. Residents on higher-lying areas within pressure zones are vulnerable and their water supply is dependent on their lower-lying neighbours.

From our reservoirs, we have allocated the precise amount of water that could be required for essential usage while protecting the resources that we have left. Nothing more is given than what is required. It is therefore up to all of us to ensure that we stick to our daily limits. When pressure management is introduced, it remains active in an area all the time. No outages are planned as they are solely dependent on the behaviour of users. Because we cannot physically control the behaviour of users, we cannot guess how long it will take for an area to get its water usage down to what is required.

Further advanced pressure management is being rolled out, with some areas at 0.5 bars and lower. But, adjustments may be made on an hourly basis if required.

That is why the City has been advising since March to keep some water for non-essential use but not to store excessive municipal water.

Bringing down the demand through pressure management and communication to promote water reduction among our users has been a vital intervention in helping to buy us time and to stretch our water supplies further.

Is the city’s water system sophisticated enough to selectively cut off areas and supply the water distribution points?

Ian Neilson: Yes. Water collection points, which will be one of the means of distributing water, have been located near reticulation points.

What plans does the City have for less able and vulnerable people to get water from Day Zero? There are many older persons who do not have transport, who live in apartments without lifts, who do not have family or friends to assist them, who don’t have the finances to use third-parties to pay for collection of water nor do they have the physical capacity to carry water.

JP Smith: We are very aware that special provisions need to be made to ensure that all people are able to access water, particularly those who are physically unable to collect it from a water collection point.

We are engaging with international organisations, National Government, Provincial Government, businesses, communities and NGOs to support us to care for our most vulnerable residents, such as the elderly and those with disabilities, during this time.

Information sessions are being set up with neighbourhood watches, NGOs, religious organisations and community groups to brief them on the Critical Water Shortages Disaster Plan and what role they will need to play in ensuring that all persons are able to access their 25 litres of water per day.

Ensuring that the persons described above are able to access water during this time will require a massive coordination effort from government and civil society. As part of the information sessions, we will be asking partners to gather information on extremely vulnerable persons in the areas where they operate. Subcouncils and ward committees will be involved in the identification of vulnerable persons in their areas and aligning these with local community-based organisations who can assist them during this time of crisis.

Has the City put in place a public health program to address potential health problems, eg water borne diseases such as cholera?

JP Smith: 1. The City is part of an established outbreak response team together with Provincial Government.

2. All notifiable cases of disease are investigated thoroughly to determine the source and to ensure that appropriate containment measures are enacted, where necessary.

3. Health officers are actively monitoring the incidence of cases during the diarrhoeal season to pick up trends in order to ensure rapid responses to disease outbreaks

4. Healthcare facilities ensure that individuals who are sick and dehydrated (especially children) receive priority treatment to prevent disease progression.

Is the city stockpiling antibiotics?

JP Smith: The City’s clinics will be capacitated to see to those in need.

Will the city be providing cheap alcohol based hand sanitisers for people to use?

JP Smith: The City will advise on methods to sanitise hands and will provide assistance at water collection sites as far as possible.

The City will be promoting the squeezie bottle as a means of ensuring that hands can be washed regularly under running water at a time when households do not have access to running water from their taps. Guidelines on how households can make their own squeezie bottle are being promoted in the current disease prevention campaign and these guidelines will also be advertised at the water collection sites via posters and pamphlets. City officials will also be present at the points to actively promote this device and provide guidance on health and hygiene.

Will the City provide public transport services to help people get to and from water points and will these be free?

JP Smith: Able-bodied residents will need to find their own way of getting to and from the collection points. Public transport will be available as usual. Other distribution mechanisms are being investigated. We are selecting sites to try and provide reasonable access to as many residents as possible and are talking to civil society about ways to assist vulnerable people.

Accessibility via public transport was one of the considerations which determined the suitability of the water collection points chosen. We are selecting sites to try and provide reasonable access to as many residents as possible.

Public transport will continue to operate as per usual during this time.

Drop-off points for buses and taxis have been incorporated into the design of the water collection points.

The majority of water collection points will also have a drive-through water collection option, which will operate in a similar way to a petrol station. Persons will be able to fill containers with water without having to remove them from their private vehicles or mini-bus taxi. This is anticipated to increase the efficiency of the water collection points and assist persons who are not physically able to carry water from water collection points.

Other distribution mechanisms are being investigated where it is unfeasible for persons to collect water themselves from a water collection point, such as the use of water tankers. We are talking to civil society about ways to assist vulnerable people during this time.

Will the water collection points be able to manage inclement weather?

JP Smith: Yes, where possible shading will be provided to protect those queuing from the sun. However, residents are advised to prepare as they normally would for inclement weather.

Will the city provide information informing people of the need to keep hands clean above all else during the Day Zero period and discouraging handshaking?

JP Smith: Yes, the City will provide sanitary guidelines.

The City is advising the following:

  • Preventative measures:
  • Increased health and hygiene programmes
  • City clinics have regular health talks about the prevention of water- and food-borne diseases and diarrhoea danger signs.
  • Health posters at water collection sites
  • People should not stop their normal precautionary health measures during this crisis

The public is encouraged to continue with their routine visits to health clinics and ensure that immunisations of all family members are up to date.

The City will continue to promote childhood vaccinations at all its healthcare facilities

When persons display symptoms of dehydration they should drink a sugar/salt solution (Half a teaspoon of salt, eight teaspoons of sugar in one litre of water) and if the symptoms persist then proceed to the nearest clinic for treatment.

Will schools and universities be prioritised as water collection points so that they can continue operating too?

JP Smith: It will largely be left up to relevant role-players in these sectors to determine suitable contingency plans and concessions for employees and students.

In terms of educational facilities, this would be for schools, governing bodies and the relevant government departments to collectively decide on.

Residents should be aware that the Day Zero phase is an extreme disaster scenario, and significant disruption of daily life is to be expected.

Many schools do have boreholes and the Western Cape Education Department is working to fast-track the roll-out of boreholes at schools in the coming months. Being connected to borehole water would mean that these schools would be able to keep their toilets operating even if they are not being supplied with water via the reticulation system.

Are there plans for providing water to essential services if the water levels drop to a point where water can’t be provided?

JP Smith: Yes. The City is procuring water tankers to assist with the provision of water to essential services which are no longer supplied with water via the reticulation system. However, as stated above, critical infrastructure and essential services have been prioritised for continued supply of water via the reticulation system. It is largely residential areas which will no longer be able to be provided with water via the reticulation system.

Is the city going to ensure that bottled water companies don’t price gouge?

Ian Neilson: The City has engaged with major retailers to get an undertaking that bottled water will be sold at fair prices.

Are plans being made to collect the excess plastic that will result from the huge increase in bottled water sales?

Ian Neilson: The City’s drop-off facilities will be key. We have diverted more than 50% of our waste from landfills already, and we expect this practice to continue.

The city claims about 60% of people aren’t saving water. How does it calculate this? And what steps are being taken to stop people using excessive water?

Ian Neilson: This is based on the billing information of account holders. It looks at what should be paid if one is within the limits, and then identifies the account holders who are over that and who have not applied for quota increases. Daily enforcement operations are ongoing, public awareness campaigns carry on and the installation of water management devices for high water users at their cost (currently, more than 2,000 per week are being fitted and we aim to increase this to more than 3,500 per week).

The pending implementation of new water and sanitation tariffs will also aim to change behaviour. High tariffs for the highest users will assist to drive down consumption.

What steps is the city taking to go to businesses and inform/discuss with them how to save water, and how to continue operating during Day Zero?

Ian Neilson: Business sector engagements have been taking place over the past months and further engagements are ongoing. The City is also sending out information directly to these stakeholders in an effort to advise them of lowering consumption and preparing their operations if Day Zero is reached.

Additional answers on News24

News24 asked JP Smith some questions that we didn’t. Of interest is that Smith said (1) people will be able to collect water at any of the points, (2) water will be free, (3) identity documents will not be required, (4) Disaster Management will provide some containers for people who don’t have, but people are expected to bring their own, (5) 149 sites have been identified with each having 50 to 72 taps, (6) each site’s hours will be determined by its person in charge, and (7) “vehicle sites will be monitored closely so that people don’t bring huge tanks and fill them. The sites are self-inhibiting in the sense that you can’t physically carry 100s of litres away so that will also help.”

Unfortunately we received some very good questions after we’d sent the above off to the City. We hope to get them answered at some point.

Letters

Dear Editor

Why are water bottling companies allowed to continue selling water and why the majority of them use municipal drinking water as a supply source?

Dear Editor

Very informative and articulate answers to questions. Mr Ramaphosa has indicated that Government will come to the party immediately. We are depending on ANC aid.

Dear Editor

In the response to water crisis questions, Smith said strategic commercial areas will continue to receive water. It is also widely reported that the CBD and waterfront areas will continue receiving tap water after day zero.

Why can a business in the CBD with 250 bankers, lawyers and support staff keep its doors open but a factory in an industrial area with 250 textile workers must effectively shut down? Why can a fancy restaurant in town stay open but one in poor areas must shut down?

The City is reinforcing its reputation as a city that works, but only works for the wealthy and connected.

Dear Editor

It is surprising how much water runs off our roofs into the sea with every rainfall. I filled up large rainwater tanks in a very short time. This is water that does not come from the dams and reservoirs.
Re-use of tap water is a good way of getting double use out of water that comes from the dams. But rainwater is 100% saving - it is water that we get without opening the tap .

It is perfect for washing clothes, watering plants and pets and can be used for cooking. If the city provides one rain tank per house ( just like the garbage bins ) it would create millions of little "dams" and therefore an independent alternative water supply.

It could be done very quickly and the cost be charged with the rates and taxes. Every new building should have a rainwater tank attached by law.

Dear Editor

All I see is survival panicking solutions and responses. I am in the water solutions business for many years, but at this moment I can see one thing happening, Cape Town is going the way of all the Large Metropolis around the world, like the Cities of Asia Jakarta etc and large cities in India where the bottle water industries became a multi billion dollar industry.

I don't think anybody wants that to happen, but I hear no real solutions for the future, but merely survival measures to go another couple of months. So please let us think about this clearly, let us put measures into place to show our gratitude towards the things we take for granted.

Recycling is the only option. Rain water from roofs can help but it doesn't clean up the environment. I do believe there is enough private enterprises in the Western Cape to bring all the necessary skills together, and this could uplift millions of poor communities.

We will do anything we can to assist this project if people are willing to start such a Save Cape Town project.

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