'We needed to build more dams a decade ago'
Delaying tactics by an anti-dam pressure group more than 10 years ago hindered the construction of urgently needed dams in the Western Cape, partly causing the current desperate shortage of water.
As new draconian water restrictions come into effect in Cape Town on Saturday and desperate water-saving measures are being put in place across the province, officials say this is the worst drought to hit the area in a century.
But had the construction of the giant Skuifraam dam on the Berg River near Franschhoek gone ahead as scheduled in the 1990s, Cape Town would have been getting the first water from the dam right now. Construction of the dam has begun, but it will be five or six years before it supplements the water supply.
More than 10 years ago the City of Cape Town and the department of water affairs identified the urgent need for dams to meet the growing water demand of the expanding city. Several sites were identified.
But a group of people dubbed the "anti-dam lobby" put huge pressure on the department of water affairs to prevent the building of a dam on the Palmiet River in the Kogelberg. The Palmiet dam was canned and the area was subsequently declared a world biosphere because of the rich fynbos unique to the area.
After succeeding in preventing the construction of that dam, the lobby then also tried to stop the building of the Skuifraam dam. Here their concerns centred on the ecological impact of such a huge dam on the lower Berg River that supplies water to many farms and is also home to a wide range of bird and plant species.
However, despite objections from the group of environmentalists, then water affairs minister Kader Asmal finally approved the construction of the Berg River dam in the latter part of the 1990s.
But when Ronnie Kasrils replaced Asmal as the new water affairs minister, the anti-dam lobby saw this as a second chance to stop the dam. They pressured Kasrils to prevent the construction of the dam, raising all sorts of environmental concerns on the impact on the lower Berg River.
Their objections largely succeeded in delaying the construction date by several years while a comprehensive environmental impact study was done. Senior city water experts said there had also been a severe lack of commitment by the city fathers to move ahead with the project.
"There was definitely a lack of political will. Spending money on poor areas took preference and the city itself must carry much of the blame for the slow pace of getting the Berg River project off the ground. For several years, despite warning from water experts, the city fathers dragged their feet, they did just about nothing," said one source.
Acting regional director of water affairs Gerrit van Zyl admitted that objections had delayed the construction of the dam. Adding to this, he said, the Western Cape was in the grip of one of the worst droughts in 100 years.
"No one could have foreseen that the drought and low rainfall of 2003 would be followed up by another very dry year in 2004.
"We can only hope that we have good rains this year otherwise we will be in dire straits."
Van Zyl said the department of water affairs was evaluating several other water sources in the Western Cape, and was also keeping a keen eye on desalinisation projects where fresh water is extracted from sea water.
"At the moment it is a costly option. While several mining towns on the West Coast are already using this technology, it remains a very expensive option for bulk water supply."
Municipalities such as Port Elizabeth and Plettenberg Bay are also running pilot desalinisation projects.
"The City of Cape Town also looked at the technology, but does not have money for further studies as financial assistance in the poor communities is a priority.
"However, we believe somewhere in the future one would have to look at this technology again. At the moment it is simply too costly because of the high energy requirements to make fresh water from seawater, but things could change."
A city spokesperson said more vigorous law enforcement would be introduced to ensure maximum compliance and there would be punitive measures for non-compliance. Any person contravening the regulations may be liable for a fine of up to R10 000 or imprisonment for up to six months or both.