With all three Cape provinces in South Africa being declared disaster areas due to drought, Peter Middleton argues for the adoption of Arizona-style water reclamation solutions so that we are better able to cope with an inevitably drier future. 

Peter pic latest‘Some rain relief for drought-hit Cape Town’ I read on enca.com at the time of writing: Friday February 9. Between 5 and 10 mm in the city and up to 20 mm in the mountains are indicated. Some would say this is a bit of a miracle, since summer rain is unusual in Mediterranean climates and, in Cape Town, February is the usually the driest and hottest month of the year.

Meanwhile, Huffpost SA is commenting on Angus Buchan’s upcoming call-to-prayer for Cape Town, which “is not a problem, but blaming the drought on Capetonian’s supposed moral indigence is...” writes Matthew Winfield.

The water crisis in the Western Cape is being described as unlike any in recorded history, a 1 in 1 000 year period of low average rainfall. Does Buchan believe that average levels of regional godless behaviour have dropped to 1 in 1 000 year lows?

Earlier this week, I received a press release from the organisers of African Utility Week, assuring its partners, exhibitors, sponsors, delegates, visitors and speakers that the conference and exhibition at the Cape Town International Conference Centre (CTICC) will go ahead as planned from 15 to 17 May.

Event director, Evan Schiff points out that Cape Town is a water scarce area that has experienced three years of sustained low rainfall, leading to Level 6b water restrictions that limit residents and visitors to a usage limit of 50 litres per person per day. “But municipal water is still being supplied and all services (health, safety, waste, sanitation) are functioning as normal,” says Schiff.

Referring to ‘Day Zero’ – presumably for the benefit of overseas visitors – he explains that this is the day when the City might have to turn off the Municipal water supply forcing residents to collect daily water rations from distribution points.

“It is important to remember that Day Zero is not inevitable,” he points out, adding that this is a “theoretical date calculated daily based on rainfall projections, infrastructure projects coming on stream and water usage across the entire system.”

Three days ago, (Feb 6), Day Zero was pushed back to 11 May, just four days before the start of African Utility Week.

Describing contingency plans being put in place at the CTICC to accommodate African Utility Week participants, he says that the centre has invested in grey water systems to ensure all hygiene functions are serviced without using any municipal/potable water; water supply has been stopped to hand basins; and waterless hand sanitiser is being provided. “Only bottled water will be served for drinking, sourced from certified producers outside of the Western Cape or water constrained areas,” he assures.

In addition, rainwater collection tanks, grey water savings and air-to-water harnessing from the HVAC systems is being used for all maintenance and cleaning activities to minimise the impact on potable water supplies.

These measures are being adopted by most hotels throughout the City, so as to reduce or completely remove pressure on the municipal supply, says Schiff, before urging an audience of “brightest minds in the water sector” to come and share further ideas.

For our lead water feature in this issue, we interview water reclamation specialist Lucinda Jooste from Xylem, who compares water scarcity and use in South Africa to Arizona in the USA. With 6.96-million people spread over a huge area receiving only 203 mm of rainfall per year, Arizona has long been dependent on groundwater sources. In Cape Town, 77% of the supply comes from rain-replenished surface sources: rivers, dams and lakes.

“Arizona places a huge emphasis on water reclamation,” notes Jooste, its groundwater being replenished using treated reclaimed water, while also making use of tertiary treated effluent for non-potable applications such as irrigation, in order to offset potable water use.

Jooste believes that, in Cape Town, we should be moving towards alternative resources, such as reclaimed domestic and industrial wastewater and far better management of storm water. As in Arizona, these sources should be used to replenish our groundwater sources, reducing dependence on dams. “It is clearly not sustainable to depend only on surface water,” she says.

Jooste sees the current crisis in Cape Town as an opportunity. “If we don’t panic or play the blame game and, instead, focus on sensible and lasting solutions, our water security could emerge better than ever – and every one of us has a role to play,” she says.

Let’s hope a weekend’s rain and any further answers to Buchan’s prayers do not stop ongoing investments and initiatives to reduce our dependence on surface water resources.

While rain is undoubtedly a Godsend, let’s never forget how valuable our water resources are and how important it is to continue to use water wisely and manage all our resources effectively so as to better cope with the certainty of a drier future.

Download and read the article in PDF format.

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Peter Middleton
Email: mechchemafrica@crown.co.za or peterm@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622 4770
Fax: +27 11 615 6108

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Phila Mzamo
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