Day 48 – Plenty to go around

There aren’t a lot of positives at the moment ( I shared my observations on that here). But sometimes, all you have to do is look at the glass being half-full, rather than half-empty.

Sorry… did I say “glass? I meant dams.

Dams.

I really don’t want to be the first to mention this, but we’re halfway through May and we’ve not had any significant rainfall in the Cape yet. It’s stirring up early memories of the drought we went through between 2015-2018. While the virus has been (rightfully) taking centre stage, there are so many other problems that are still out there – they haven’t gone away just because we’re facing a bigger challenge right now.

The City has been (quietly) keeping us up to date with the demand for water and the dam levels. As you might expect in Autumn, (hopefully) heading into the rainy season, the dam levels aren’t all that they could be and they continue to decline slowly each week with the population using water and it not being replaced at quite the same rate.

I’m sure you know how it works.

However, it seems that the Covid-19 crisis might have some very positive spin-offs for the impending dry wet season – at least according to FB commenter Joachim:

 

Look, he’s not wrong: fewer residents use less water.

Fact.

There’s plenty of evidence of people leaving the city and trying to head home to their family homes in the Eastern Cape. And indeed, piles of corpses overwhelming our local medical facilities are unlikely to bathe, water their gardens or leave the tap running while they brush their teeth.

Which will save a fair bit as well.

But am I alone in thinking that Joachim hasn’t really gone through all of the implications of the situation he describes in his comment before sharing it with the world?

The water crisis is not over for everyone

More rain today in Cape Town. To be honest, we could all do with some summer now, but any complaints are tempered by the still very fresh memories of the recent drought.

Our dams are now up to 84.5% full, an incredible recovery from the time of that visit to Theewaterskloof just 20 months ago. Amazingly, Theewaterskloof itself cracked the 75% milestone this week. With all this good news, it would be reasonable to think that we were all in the clear now. And Cape Town pretty much is: for the moment at least.

It’s a different story just up the road though. I drove out to Montagu this week, where there hasn’t been any significant rainfall in 4 years. Much of the local economy is reliant on farming, and farming is reliant on water.

There is no water.

It’s hardly rocket surgery to work out implications of this situation. If farms can’t farm, there’s no money to spend locally, there’s no money to employ workers. Thus GDP drops, unemployment rises, poverty rises and brings with it increased drug/alcohol use, and with that, increased crime and health problems.

I was lucky enough to visit the Poortjieskloof Dam on the (currently misnamed) Grootrivier. Poortjieskloof supplies several of the farms in the area and has a capacity of 9.4million m³. That’s about one third the size of the Steenbras Upper dam that you drive over at the top of Sir Lowry’s Pass. i.e. it’s big.

It’s also almost completely empty.

The water that you can see there is little more than a metre deep, well below even the bottom of three outlet points on the dam wall. When full, it should be 33m deep, but even the lowest of the depth markers (4m) on the bank is way above the water level. It’s a shocking sight, and a reminder that we live in an urban-orientated, insular news bubble. While we are celebrating our deliverance from the infamous Day Zero, this dam – literally just 100km from Theewaterskloof – is on its last legs, along with the local community which depends so heavily upon it.

While I do understand that the climate is changing, I’m also aware that that is what climates do, and the amount of hype in the media leaves me cold. I’ve seen enough good science being manipulated to sell papers and get website clicks to just willingly believe everything I read. However, that said, if one takes this as an example of the implications of prolonged drought and its effect on a small community, extrapolation to a city the size of Cape Town is frankly terrifying. Whether or not you think that there is any anthropogenic effect on the climate is almost immaterial. The fact is that we’re clearly unable to deal with any robust change in our environment.

However, it’s not all bad news in this particular case. While I was visiting one of the local farms, their 170m deep borehole was completed and yielded its first water, which will hopefully at least allow them to save their trees in preparation for next year’s crop. This year has been a write off. Add the cost of drilling and pumping from a borehole onto a season with literally no income and you can see the desperate state that things are in.

I’m looking forward to going back and seeing healthier farms, a healthier local economy and happier faces next year. As for Poortjieskloof – that will require literally years and years of above average rainfall to get back to any significant level. And that seems very unlikely to happen at this stage.

Theewaterskloof not revisited

More amazing blogger professionalism here as I noted that it was (almost) a year ago when I took this group of pictures at the – then empty – Theewaterskloof Dam near Villiersdorp. Here’s the post.

It being (almost) one year on, it seems reasonable – essential, even – that I should return and do a comparison set of images. But I simply don’t have the time to fit that in, so you’ll just have to take my word for the fact that things are much improved from those worrying conditions of early February 2018. w

Today, Theewaterskloof stands at 48% full, compared to 14% when we visited last year. Overall, our dams are 62% full, compared to 27% this time last year. There are no worries about not having water in a couple of months time. All is good. All is moist.

There is a small, yet vocal, minority of individuals who still believe that the entire water crisis was simply a myth. They argue that it was merely a DA (our local ruling party) ploy to charge more money for water and to install Israeli-made water meters. There are two points that I would like to make to these people:

Firstly, that there is a small, yet vocal, minority of individuals who still believe that the moon landings were faked.
They are also wrong.

Secondly, supposing for just a moment that their allegations are correct (which they’re not); the sheer amount of effort to clandestinely remove billions and billions of litres of water over three years – enough to fool NASA (the same guys who faked the moon landings), prevent meaningful precipitation over a catchment area of 500 square kilometres (for Theewaterskloof alone) for 36 months and make news headlines worldwide surely deserves some sort of accolade?
Admit it: that is an incredible endeavour.

And for those thinking of switching their upcoming election vote away from the DA because of the way that they handled the crisis (and yes, it certainly wasn’t perfect), please make sure you choose to vote for a party which you genuinely believe could have managed it any better.
There’s suddenly not such a great selection any more, hey?

Drought news

Apparently it rained a lot in Cape Town while we were away.
Well, ok. If you say so. We’ve been back for five days now and we haven’t seen any continuation of that alleged precipitation. And, looking at the forecast for the next five days, there’s only a small chance of a little bit of drizzle on Monday evening as far as I can see.

That said, some local websites are full of good news about our local big reservoir “doubling in capacity”.

For the record, this hasn’t happened. There may be a case for suggesting that the volume of water in Theewaterskloof has doubled from the worryingly low levels earlier in the year, but I have to tell you that the capacity has stayed exactly the same.

Semantics. I know. Sorry.
Pop me in Pendant’s Corner.

Meanwhile, another blog helpfully tells us how this whole sorry situation  came about (it didn’t rain):

And how the reservoir “fought back from the brink” (it rained):

It’s fascinating, incisive stuff. But I do appreciate that it’s all a bit technical, so don’t worry if you’re struggling to keep up.
That’s why we have experts for this sort of thing. And that’s why they get paid the big bucks.

Don’t get me wrong though. No matter how shitty the reporting, it is great that we’ve moved forward from what we saw when we went out there in February.

But drought isn’t a purely Capetonian thing. Take a look at Sheffield’s local reservoir, which also supplies Derby, Nottingham and Leicester:

It’s looking scarily similar to scenes we’ve seen here recently. In the distance, you can see one of the towers of the Derwent Dam, which should look like this:

There’s a lot more dam wall on show in that top image than there should be.

Sheffield isn’t quite at the point of water restrictions yet, although other places in the UK are about to be (and Northern Ireland was, but isn’t any more).

As for Cape Town, our Level 6b water restrictions are still in place. We’re out of the woods, but we still can’t afford to be complacent. And the city council are going to ensure we remember that by charging us a ridiculous amount for the water that we use.

But I can understand their caution in not cutting the restrictions just yet. When they do, water use is inevitably going to spike and it would be seen as a huge own goal to have to reinstate the restrictions once they had relaxed them.

Perhaps what they should do is to double the capacity of all our dams.
That would make a huge difference.

As long as it rained.

 

The capacity of the Table Mountain dams

Yet another so-called anomaly pounced upon by the conspiracy theorists when it comes to the Cape Town water crisis is that of the Table Mountain dams.

Yes, there are five dams on the top of Table Mountain. They were built there during late 1800s and early 1900s as the population of Cape Town expanded and more water was required. Maybe we should have tried this idea more recently too. Anyway, you can still visit the dams on the top of the mountain (but be careful) and you can still see a lot of the late Victorian infrastructure running through Newlands Forest.

The dams are  Woodhead (1), Hely-Hutchinson (2), Victoria (3), Alexandra (4) and De Villiers (5). The other blue area towards the suburbs on the right is the Kirstenbosch dam, and doesn’t count here.

Anyway, there are two questions that people are asking about the Table Mountain dams. Firstly, why are they so full compared with the other dams out east (79.9% vs 25.9% on February 1st)?

Table Mountain is a 1km high lump of rock surrounded by very little other stuff which is 1km high. Its location right down in the very bottom corner of Africa, ostensibly bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on 2½ sides means that it has its own microclimate and is a veritable magnet for rapidly condensing air. It’s regularly moist on top. It’s one of the reasons that the dams were built there in the first place (the other being the use of gravity to produce water pressure).
Newlands’ proximity to the mountain explains why it is so wet compared with virtually every other Cape Town suburb. And also why it’s dark there by 2pm every day in winter. So yes, the top of Table Mountain is more regularly wet than most anywhere else in the metropole (including Newlands).

And that’s why those dams are fuller than you might have expected.

Next question – why aren’t we using that water?

Well, right now, any water is good water. So don’t get me wrong when I tell you this. But there’s actually not much water in those dams, even when they’re full.

Those 5 dams (together) have a total capacity of 2376 Ml.
Theewaterskloof (alone) has a total capacity of 480188 Ml.
That’s over 202 times the combined capacity of the Table Mountain dams.
And even though Theewaterskloof is very, very empty (13%) at the moment (see here) (and not here), there’s still 24 times more water in it right now than there is in the (80% full) Table Mountain dams.

The total capacity of the Big 6 dams supplying Cape Town is 378 times the capacity of the Table Mountain dams. Scale.

Even if we could (and did) empty what’s in those dams, it would only give Cape Town about 4 days water, which is certainly not to be sniffed at, but is not going to save a doomed city of 4 million residents either.

 

I hope that has answered your questions.
Have a special day.