Cape Town - For eight years Caron von Zeil of Newlands has worked on Reclaim Camissa, a project that uncovered and documented the vast amount of fresh water that flows to waste underneath Cape Town.
Her work has been cutting edge: most of the springs and rivers that flow from Table Mountain have been paved over and forgotten, and every day millions of litres of fresh mountain water rushes away unused into drains or sewers.
Von Zeil’s archive research showed that historically there were 36 springs in the City Bowl. She has uncovered 25 springs and four underground rivers. The City of Cape Town has only 13 springs on their records. Parliament is sitting on two springs and a huge underground reservoir.
Von Zeil’s research began as a master’s degree at UCT and developed into Reclaim Camissa, a non-profit organisation that worked on ideas to harness this underground water, and on cultural projects that could be developed.
Since 2005 she has been trying to get the city council to endorse Reclaim Camissa. Today she is no closer to this goal - although several officials and councillors say her project is “great”.
“We don’t understand it. We’ve done all this work at no charge and we’ve shared it with the city, with officials from just about every department, with councillors, and they all say it’s great, but we get nowhere,” Von Zeil said.
Her work has excited several water scientists, planners and academics.
Reclaim Camissa’s first pilot project was called Field of Springs, which was to be based on vacant council land in Oranjezicht where several springs were located. It would harness the spring water and be an outdoor water museum with natural ponds where people could see the water being cleansed. It would have an outdoor laboratory, education centre, bird hide and a bottling system where offices that used large glass water coolers could tap into the spring water.
Reclaim Camissa won first prize in the 2010 Multiplicity competition for inclusion in the city council’s winning bid for the World Design Capital and it was recognised by the Cape Town Partnership as “One of the Big Five Ideas” for the city. Premier Helen Zille awarded the Field of Springs project her 110 percent Green Flag status, which confers prestige on projects by “green pioneers”.
But for all that acclaim, the project has gone nowhere because it lacks city council endorsement.
Now the city has given the Oranjezicht land Von Zeil asked to lease for Field of Springs to another organisation, which applied after her.
“They are growing vegetables on the land. Agriculture on top of freshwater springs. That is crazy and it is illegal in terms of the National Water Act and the National Environmental Management Act.”
Von Zeil has called on councillor Garreth Bloor to rescind the lease. However, she says, the city’s property management department has told her the land has not been leased, although a vegetable garden has been established on it, with access to 4 000 litres of free water a day.
Von Zeil brought the matter to the attention of the city in March last year, but says it has not been addressed. “If there is no lease, it is tantamount to a land invasion.”
David Dewar, emeritus professor and senior research scholar in the School of Architecture and Planning at UCT, is one of the trustees of Reclaim Camissa, and has made several visits to the Civic Centre with Von Zeil to get the city council’s endorsement.
“We got pushed from one department to another. We’ve given presentations to almost every city department and they say ‘fantastic, but it’s not my department’,” Dewar said.
“We had a meeting with mayor Patricia de Lille, who made Ossie Asmal the point man to make things easier, but we’ve never heard from him. We had a meeting with councillor Garreth Bloor months ago where he promised to treat it as a matter of urgency, but nothing happened.”
The Reclaim Camissa trustees have since heard the city is planning to apply to the Department of Water Affairs for a water licence for the spring water.
“They’re seeking to make this their own,” Dewar said.
The council was asked for comment on Wednesday, but had not replied by deadline on Thursday.