Construction is underway on East Pier road in the V&A Waterfront. According to the site office, it's a Waste Management Facility. Picture Henk Kruger/ANA
Cape Town - Experts claim that over the past few winters in Cape Town there were clear signs that a drought was approaching and action by the various roleplayers to prolong its direct effect on residents of the city and the province could have been effected well in advance.

In May 2015, the City of Cape Town issued a media release stating that city dams were below seasonal averages, but that water supply remained “secure”. It further stated that through “careful planning and thorough infrastructure replacement and maintenance programme means that projected demand is unlikely to exceed projected supply for the foreseeable future”.

It added that because Cape Town received most of its rainfall during the winter months, concern at that point was still premature and that the months of June, July and August would “determine the level storage of the dams going into 2016”.

Even though the City reminded residents of responsible water use to “ensure supply for future use”, they also stated plans were in place in cases of drought.

“Residents are assured that the City’s modelling and operation of the system of dams within the Western Cape Water Supply System (WCWSS) makes allowance for periods of low rainfall, and planning takes into account possible conditions for a number of years into the future. Reserve storage and, if necessary, the imposing of (relatively) short-term water restrictions, will allow for continued water supply during severe droughts.”

Two months later, in July 2015, the City said that although there had been rainfall it had not restored the dam levels to that of previous years, and encouraged residents to put in an effort to save water.

In September 2015, the City realised that winter rain brought little relief to declining dam levels and said they were set to meet with national government to discuss possible water restrictions.

As of January 2016, Level 2 water restrictions were implemented in Cape Town, which have since increased to where it now stands at Level 5.

Currently dam levels are below their average compared to previous years and water rationing has already taken effect, with further measures set to be implemented should the situation not improve.

However, environmental groups say this could have been delayed if earlier interventions were put in place.

Patrick Dowling of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa) Western Cape membership committee said: “The City, its leaders, residents and businesses could have responded more proactively to the looming threat of major water shortages.

“The water demand management strategy was successful to the point that it saw little consumption increase despite population growth, however, this approach could not have continued indefinitely with the strong growth, development and densification policy that the city has adopted, one that has tested infrastructure to the extreme and often ignored professional precautionary advice.”

However, he said the City has recently adopted a “strongly-worded climate strategy where water is highlighted”.

“Despite it being ahead of many other municipalities in this regard, it is a bit late for dealing with the current crisis where day zero is predicted for March 2017, barring a major weather event. Only recently has the option of rainwater harvesting been getting the general attention and promotion that it deserves, but we hope this sustainable practice will now be embedded.”

More dams being built would not help the situation, he said, as they damage the ecosystem services.

“Other options of cautious rechargeable aquifer supply, desalination and wastewater purification should have been purposely investigated 10 years or more ago. This is a hard lesson to learn, but one that should provide numerous salutary messages about the meaning of sustainable development, not ignoring climate science, involving everybody in good environmental governance and the practical implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals that South Africa has signed up to.”

Dr Jim Taylor, the director of environmental education at Wessa, said the current water crisis facing Cape Town is “extremely concerning to all who value a sustainable future. This is a crisis that cannot be solved by government alone and one that requires meaningful co-operation between the local government, business and industry, and the public.”

He said the water supply is being challenged by “enormous urbanisation growth and climate variability”.

Jessica Wilson from the Environmental Monitoring Group said that tighter restrictions and enforcement put in place sooner could have delayed the current drought.

She also said the city needs to stop approving new building developments “immediately” and “possibly even pause current construction” until the worst of this crisis has passed.

She said new developments take a lot of water to build, and that a number of new developments don’t have “water efficiency measures in place for after they've been built”.

The Weekend Argus posed questions to the City in terms of regulations and monitoring of the construction of new developments during the drought, as well as whether there were plans to halt any existing or new developments during the current water crisis.

Brett Herron, mayoral committee member for Transport and Urban Development for the City, said: “At a recent Green Building Council conference, many property developers shared how they were adapting and building water efficiencies into their work. Many are leading the way with building energy and water efficiencies into their operations.

"We are also engaging with various sectors because all of us who are working and living in Cape Town must adapt to the new normal - that Cape Town and the Western Cape is a drought region. Companies are already investing in and using waste water treatment and purification systems to reduce their demand on the city’s grid,” said Herron.

Weekend Argus