Nazeer A Sonday

If you don’t already know, the country is suffering a drought of epic proportions.

On January 14 the Democratic Alliance, the country’s official opposition and the governing party in the Western Cape, called for the drought to be declared “a national disaster”.

On January 1, the City of Cape Town implemented level 2 water restrictions. The city’s website notes “we are situated in a water-scarce region” and it has been necessary “to preserve the long-term sustainability of the resource”.

The drought is already having a direct impact on food security, health care and employment with, according to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, “no end in sight”.

Yet the city governors are supporting plans that will destroy the Cape Flats Aquifer (CFA), a valuable water resource which could supply the city with almost a third of its potable water needs.

Agriculture in the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) is wholly dependent on this resource. This crisis puts in sharp focus the need to better understand, value and manage the CFA.

The CFA is an integrated underground water system covering 630 square kilometres, mostly located underneath the Cape Flats.

It is an underground sponge which, according to eminent UWC and UN hydrologist Yongxin Xu, holds enough fresh water to supply the city with 30 percent of its potable water needs almost immediately. Unlike a dam, an aquifer is super-efficient in that it needs no above-ground land to store water. No construction is required and, unlike a dam, water loss to evaporation is zero.

Essential to the health of the CFA is its recharge zone – the above-ground catchment area. The PHA farmlands and wetlands – in the heart of the Cape Flats – is the last natural green space where rainfall can permeate freely into the underground aquifer and is integral to its survival.

Thirty percent of the PHA floods during winter months, creating numerous seasonal wetlands. These wetlands are a habitat to 98 bird species, including flamingos, and play a vital function recharging the aquifer. Paving over the PHA farmlands with housing and asphalt and mining silica sand will starve and eventually destroy the aquifer.

In turning down the 280ha U-vest (formerly MSP) development application in December 2013, provincial MEC Anton Bredell referred specifically to the CFA, saying: “There is a definite gradation and division between poorer quality water areas in the northern sector of the PHA and areas of higher water quality in the southern sector, associated with the presence of the Cape Flats Aquifer.

“Geo-physical and climatic conditions make the southern sector of the PHA potentially the best horticultural land in the area. The PHA is located on an aquifer, available as a free water source for horticulture. The quantity and quality of this groundwater is best in the south of the PHA. The southern PHA areas are also closest to the cooling coastal breezes, a favourable condition in the hot, dry summers.”

Despite the value of the PHA for citizens, the City of Cape Town gave tacit approval [appendix: “overlay zoning comment – LUM28558 (Vol 1) Case 70245868, 091115]” for the 280ha U-Vest development last year (which includes 6 000 houses, shopping centres and a private school), and in September 2015 approved the development framework for the 472ha Oakland City development, which proposes 20 000 middle-income housing, commercial and industrial centres and a private prison (appendix: comment on draft development framework for Oakland City – PHA_ LUM28-579).

Together, these developments will delete one-third of the 3 000ha breadbasket to the city. A total of 150 000 tons of vegetables and flower production per year, the aquifer and wetlands, and nearly 4 000 jobs in the PHA will die a slow death as a result of these proposed developments. Why is the city ignoring its own council officials and MEC Bredell?

DA leader Mmusi Maimane noted in July 2015 that: “Poor management of the country’s water infrastructure would see unemployment climb, businesses close and shortages that would equal the current electricity crisis.”

He said the country has a constitution that guaranteed water as a right, but that underspending and mismanagement ensure that it is being denied to millions of South Africans.

It would seem that this very mismanagement is taking place on our very doorstep.

The water crisis is also a food crisis as food grows where water flows. The cost of food is on an upward trajectory due to the rising cost of fuel and fertilisers. The drought has put further pressure on the price of food. If the PHA is lost to development, food prices in the city will spiral out of control.

It is time to have a real conversation on the value of the Cape Flats Aquifer and the PHA.

The PHA has been producing the city’s vegetables since 1885 and its role as the guardian of the CFA has become clearly apparent. The short-term profit to a few developers cannot be allowed to over-ride the priceless long-term benefit of food, water and climate security offered by the Cape Flats Aquifer and PHA. Developers can build housing on the alternative 11 000ha of available land in the city. Why has the City not explored putting houses on these hectares?

The Cape Flats Aquifer is literally under our feet, yet is not managed, is poorly understood and poorly valued. The massive crisis of a pending years-long drought should force government to translate fine rhetoric into implementable plans. The City should declare the PHA the country’s first agricultural conservation area.

This is the only way farming capacity can be enhanced, the wetlands conserved and the aquifer protected for future generations. The PHA should take its rightful place as a unique-in-the-world asset and tourist experience as the breadbasket to the city. The citizens of Cape Town cannot afford to lose this priceless resource.

l Sonday is convener of the PHA Food & Farming Campaign