Scientist Predicts That Cape Towns Water Supply Will End Up In ‘a total system crash in March 2018’! 

October 23, 2017

The slow onset crisis unfolding in South Africa is – at least in my professional opinion – about to enter a new phase. Gauteng came within a week of running out of water last year, saved only by a major rainfall event that fell literally deep into the eleventh hour. Many think that the drought has gone away, so they no longer worry. Cape Town is now where Gauteng was over a year ago. Unless it rains in the next 4 months, then the water supply will literally collapse by March 2018.

This is very serious, so I have decided to write this piece in a sincere effort to galvanize constructive debate in the public interest.

The dataset attached shows dam levels since November 2016. Remember that the Western Cape is a winter rainfall area, so we are now out of the normal rainfall season entering the dry season with dams less than 30% full. But this only tells part of the story. The second graph shows the combined total of all dams in the Cape Town metro area since 2014 as the blue line, with useable water as the red line. Note the following:

1) Distinct seasonal cyclicity as rain falls in the winter followed by a dry summer.

2) Useable water is always less than dam levels, because of losses and other factors.

3) Each peak since 2014 has been lower than the previous peak, with a near linear downwards trend over the last three years.

4) Each trough follows a similar trend, being lower than the previous cycle.

5) The data stops in October 2017 (present date) on a high that is lower than all previous highs in this dataset, so extrapolating historic data into the future, we see a total system crash in March 2018.

This is dire. In fact, this will be the first case of total system failure in the country. Without water commerce is not possible. Shopping centres cannot operate if they cannot flush toilets. Banks cannot have staff on the premises if they cannot use the toilet. Schools cannot operate if children are unable to remain hydrated and flush toilets (here the proxy is a school in Port Shepstone that was forced to send pupils home for the same reason). Hotels cannot provide for guests so the tourism industry fails. Hospitals cannot function so patients need to be transported elsewhere (here the most accurate proxy indicator is the Murchison Hospital near Port Shepstone where water supplies have failed). If a high-rise building should start to burn, then there is insufficient water to extinguish the flames (here the proxy is Braamfontein a year ago).

As I said, this is dire. I am not being alarmist, because everything I have said in the previous paragraph has already happened in different parts of the country. I have posted information on some of these specific events on my FB page so scroll backwards to educate yourself. In fact, some businesses are now starting to think about having to run a short week to stretch the water they might get a little further.

So, with these facts as a background, we can ask some probing questions. Here I offer these to any journalist that might be reading, because these are the kinds of questions that citizens need to know about if they are to have a sensible conversation with their elected government officials. Yes – I am trying to mobilize the media, so in effect I am now becoming an activist, and if this somehow disqualifies me from legitimate further engagement, then so be it.

The first question is why has national government (run by the ANC) not reacted to the data from the National Water Resource Strategy published two decades ago that stated, with a high level of confidence, that four water management areas would be in deficit by 2025, with the Berg River being one? I don’t know the answer to this, but suggest one of two alternatives. Either government was simply incompetent after purging all the skilled technicians in order to create space to reward loyal cadres. Or the ANC is deliberately strangling the DA by withholding infrastructure development funds in the belief that system failure will enable them to regain power. (I sincerely hope that I am wrong in this observation, because it takes politics to a new low in this country).

The second question is why the Terms of Reference for any new solution have been framed in a way that deliberately excludes desalination as an option? This is done by calling only for temporary solutions, thereby reducing the payback time to such an extent that desalination is prohibitive. Does this betray the fact that the decision-makers are unaware of the dire situation they are in and therefore assume (wrongly) that when the drought is broken everything will go back to normal? Best available science shows that rainfall is declining over long-time scales and cold fronts are not penetrating as deeply onto land as they used to. In short, rainfall patterns are changing and the Western Cape will naturally revert to a desert similar to the Namib and the Karoo. Or is there a more sinister motive? Are there vested interests that wish to keep desalination out of the game being protected by gatekeepers in local and provincial government? I don’t know the answers to this but the question deserves to be asked.

The third question is on what technical basis has the sustainable yield of the Table Mountain Aquifer and other local groundwater resources been estimated? One of the four pillars of the strategy recently announced by Mayor de Lille, is groundwater. But, as demand grows and more water is abstracted, while at the same time rainfall trends show a distinct declining trend, then recharge is going to decrease and with that sustainable yield severely impacted. (I will post a seperate link on recharge to show how the Australian government approaches these matters). Are these politicians merely ignorant and clutching at straws by the allure of the Cinderella resource beneath their feet? What is their understanding of the Ghyben-Herzberg Principle that tells us with a high level of confidence that when you abstract fresh water from a coastal aquifer, then salt water intrusion is a logical outcome. Are business interests dependent on drilling maybe influencing this agenda? Has anyone in power even asked the question about aquifer recharge?

The fourth question is what plans do businesses have in face of the projected probability that unless there is a storm event of unprecedented magnitude – a natural disaster in its own right – they will have no more business after March 2018? What strategies are directors of companies developing to protect the interest of investors and the livelihoods of employees? What are the commercial real estate owners and managers doing to ensure that their rent-paying clients will be able to keep staff on the premises when they are unable to flush toilets in March next year? What are Trustees of Bodies Corporate doing to protect the interests of owners in sectional title schemes on whose behalf they act? What are the administrators of hospitals and schools planning to do when the water runs out? What are food producers and distributors doing to ensure health and safety standards for their products when toilets cannot be flushed and hands cannot be washed? What are the institutional investors doing to eliminate risk embedded in stocks exposed to this specific water crisis, in order to meet their fiduciary responsibility towards pensioners and other investors whose capital they manage?

In conclusion, let me nail my colours to the mast. It is my professional opinion that we are transitioning from the Business as Usual model where the state provided assurance of supply, to a new as yet ill-defined Business Unusual model in which a failing state is no longer able to provide the most basic services for its citizens. This means that government is simply unable to do anything about it, so those waiting for some magical moment when leadership will emerge from Pretoria, like the US Cavalry coming to rescue a beleaguered force, are in for a surprise. Remember the Alamo. Remember Custer’s last stand at Little Bighorn. Remember Life Esidemeni. Remember Marikana. Remember Inkandla and Guptagate. Government simply does not care about anyone other than the rent-seeking elites that have captured key revenue streams. (We forget far too easily it seems).

Furthermore, in my professional opinion there is overwhelming scientific evidence to show that climate is changing, irrespective of what Donald Trump tells the world in a litany of angry but ignorant tweets. Temperatures are rising so evaporation is increasing and system yields are declining. Storms are becoming more violent, hail increasing, but in the case of the Western Cape, cold fronts (that drive rainfall) are becoming weaker and less able to penetrate the continent. In fact, the Western Cape is one of six Mediterranean climatic zones in the world, and all are in distress for the very same reasons. A documentary film on this very topic is about to be made public, so watch that space. What this means is a New Normal as yet not understood by politicians and regulators.

Finally, I cannot see a future for commerce and industry in the Western Cape without three critical elements of a new water security strategy. These are (1) the recovery of water from sewage, (2) the desalination of sea water and (3) managed aquifer recharge (MAR). Significantly all use similar technologies. More importantly, if these are part of a strategic plan to mitigate risk in Business Unusual, then the time scales over which capital costs are amortised are not the 24 months currently embedded in the tender process logic. These technologies can provide water security at affordable prices ONLY if the capital repayment horizon is longer than 20 years. None of these technologies can be used for the mythical water security being sought if CAPEX has to be recovered over two years.

If you care about these issues, then please reflect on what I have said above. If you really believe that water is critical to social stability, economic prosperity, job creation and happiness, then consider sharing this post. Let us see if we can create a movement that brings some technical robustness into decision-making that affects every citizen irrespective of race, culture, creed or social status. In short, water is far too important to be left in the hands of politicians that fail to understand the new reality they are dealing with, or regulators playing political games to undermine the viability of opposition parties.

Dr Anthony Turton

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  1. Gisela van Reenen 23 October, 2017, 12:01

    A very interesting, but also disturbing article. Where was it originally published?

      Reply this comment
  2. Sabine Hartmann-Stander 23 October, 2017, 14:20

    Time for people’s taxes in the Cape to be paid to the Cape DA and not the ANC , so that the Cape has the funds at hand needed for the infrastructure that’s been withheld!!!!

      Reply this comment
  3. JOAO RUI JOLLIVET DE OLIVEIRA 23 October, 2017, 15:10

    Of course the climate is changing, that has always been the case, the question is why blame man when it has always changed and at time when man was either not around but around in far fewer numbers! China for example was several degrees warmer 2000 years ago than it is today when there were far fewer human being around. In the Jurassic period it was as much as 15 degrees warmer. So change is the only certainty, if we know that why blame man.

      Reply this comment
    • Deborah Donnelly 23 October, 2017, 20:12

      Well, if man wants to survive, we will need to adapt. Animal agriculture is the greatest use of water worldwide, so, millions of stubborn people with heads in the sand will need to face their own personal change if they want to survive. Worldwide veganism could save the planet, and the animals wouldn’t be unhappy about that either.

        Reply this comment
      • Steve Nicol 26 October, 2017, 04:53

        Based on man’s behaviour, he/she does not deserve to survive, and those that do will be much better people. The world will be a better place, so why all the fuss.

          Reply this comment
      • Al Viljoen 30 October, 2017, 08:37

        Why is it that extremists always twist the facts.
        If worlwide veganism took place there would be no animals except in zoos – there would be no reason to keep them if you couldn’t sell them.

          Reply this comment
      • Mark Gall 6 November, 2017, 21:20

        Joao: I’m from the U.S., and worked for our NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a U.S. government weather agency) and military in meteorology, and have a science university background. Your statement has no basis in reality. The entire world’s scientists disagree with you. What climate working experience do you have to make your statement? You cannot provide any actual scientific websites to back up your claims.The facts are this:
        John Tyndall proved in 1859 that several gases trapped heat in the atmosphere. CO2 was one, and we’ve raised the level enough to produce the impacts we are now seeing.
        “During 2013 and 2014, only 4 of 69,406 authors of peer-reviewed articles on global warming, 0.0058% or 1 in 17,352, rejected AGW. Thus, the consensus on AGW among publishing scientists is above 99.99%, verging on unanimity. The U.S. House of Representatives holds 40 times as many global warming rejecters as are found among the authors of scientific articles. The peer-reviewed literature contains no convincing evidence against AGW.”
        Please comment on topics that you have some knowledge of. You sound like our Republican administration.

          Reply this comment
    • Tom Connolly 25 October, 2017, 04:39

      Why blame man…have you buried your head in the sand for the last decade? Perhaps because 97% of Scientists have reached consensus that Global Warming is not just a thing…but is linked directly to increased CO² levels which are predominantly due to human endeavor? Yes change is certain…but the rate of that change is being directly influenced by our fossil fuel driven economies. Live in denial if it makes you feel better or get on board and try and make a difference.

        Reply this comment
    • Douglas 26 October, 2017, 07:39

      I agree holeheartedly!

        Reply this comment
  4. Michelle 24 October, 2017, 04:39

    @Deborah Donnelly – Sure, the animals wouldn’t be *unhappy*, they’ll be dead. If not they would continue to use the same amount of water, right? Did you ever develop any logical thinking at all?

      Reply this comment
    • Derek John Main 24 October, 2017, 08:49

      The animals are being bred artificially to meet the never-ending demand of meat-eaters. If they were allowed to procreate naturally, they would adapt to the amount of resources available and breed less. It’s only humans that are too thick to adapt their behaviour to the prevailing conditions. What happened to your logical thinking there?

        Reply this comment
    • Al Viljoen 30 October, 2017, 08:39

      I don’t think she did.
      Vegans are extremists and extremists don’t think logically.

        Reply this comment
  5. Allan 24 October, 2017, 07:03

    Keep voting communism and this is what you get, food will be the next thing to run out

      Reply this comment
  6. jeeva 24 October, 2017, 13:53

    This article doesn’t make any reference of the impending La Nino (standard) that is about the hit the Cape Region coming December… La Nino = abnormal high rainval

      Reply this comment
  7. Not a scientist 24 October, 2017, 14:01

    Im sorry but this article is very unprofessional and immature as if written by a teenager. Please be more realistic, refined and factual in your statements.

      Reply this comment
    • Ruth Coggin 25 October, 2017, 06:36

      Appears very professional and mature to me, not to mention realistic, refined and factual. In fact, it’s an excellent article.

        Reply this comment
    • Dave Joubert 25 October, 2017, 18:35

      This is one of the few articles that seems to address the problem. Point out the “unprofessional” and “immature” points please? Otherwise keep very quiet. Are you a troll?

        Reply this comment
    • Steve Nicol 25 October, 2017, 19:16

      Maybe you dont know who Dr Turton is. There is probably nothing nonprofessional / or immature about this man, who has been in the forefront of water related issues / research for many years. He is factual, and realistic. Now, do your research.

        Reply this comment
    • Simon Page 26 October, 2017, 09:06

      “Not a scientist”
      Says it all really.

        Reply this comment
      • Nikolas Radkov 13 November, 2017, 22:41

        I definitely agree with Not a Scientist. I really don’t have the inclination to point out all the irresponsible, misleading and ignorant information. For one thing he says there is no plan to use desalination? Where has he been? And there’s so much more it’s just absurd.

          Reply this comment
  8. Jeremy Evans 24 October, 2017, 18:19

    I’m surprised that no-one questions the mantra that the unusable portion of a reservoir or dam is ten per cent. Depending on where flow and abstraction occur, in the case of the Western Cape it would be better to consider 15 – 18%.

      Reply this comment
  9. WayneD 24 October, 2017, 18:57

    I cannot comment on the validity of the overall article, but given how much water gets flushed down the toilet, perhaps it is time waterless toilet systems got a lot more attention. I have been using such a system for 3 years now, and it works just fine although adaptation would be needed in an urban environment.

      Reply this comment
    • Susan Swain 29 October, 2017, 14:41

      Agreed, we need radical efficiency to be our major focus. The radically wasteful technology of using potable water (liters of it) to flush away human waste is not mentioned. Our industries also need radical changes to ensure they use the least amount of water possible. What about a recent Green Times article that mentioned that CT receives 4 times its annual consumption of water as rainfall…and this is lost to stormwater systems designed to carry water away as quickly as possible. Even if rainfall lessens to half of normal annual amounts, that’s still double what CT needs? There is your source of water…not energy-intensive desalination. Recycling the water we currently consume is the other source. But learning to ‘sip’ water …. in terms of industries, agriculture, households…that has to be our starting point, plus harvesting and storing rain and stormwater to meet as much of our own individual needs as possible

        Reply this comment
      • Al Viljoen 30 October, 2017, 08:48

        Water flows downhill.
        To use water you have to store it uphill from the place of use.
        To use the water from the rain falling in CT it would have to be pumped uphil
        Creating power to pump uphill uses water.
        Catch 22

          Reply this comment
  10. Shireen 25 October, 2017, 06:00

    Why would you even bring Trump’s name into this article? You had me quite interested in your article until you bashed Trump for no reason whatsoever. That’s when you ‘lost’ me. That’s when I realised you just another MSM follower. Now I have a problem believing your story. Well at least some of it.

      Reply this comment
    • Ruth Coggin 25 October, 2017, 08:28

      I don’t think it’s very logical to have a problem with an argument as well-written and researched as this one, simply because you don’t like a reference to a politician.

        Reply this comment
    • Dave Joubert 25 October, 2017, 18:45

      Shireen, you get lost very easily it seems. Trumpism can be defined as the convenient denial of rationally construed information and arguments. So the article is suggesting that Trumpism is at work here.

        Reply this comment
  11. Jo 25 October, 2017, 07:40

    Maybe if the Cape Town City Council had upgraded infrastructure to keep apace of all the developments they approved and continue to approve (lots of opportunity to pull in rates and taxes seems to have been more important than if they actually had the resources for this massive influx of development/people), we would be in a better situation.

      Reply this comment
    • Tish 25 October, 2017, 21:25

      Now you’re talking. I couldn’t agree more. Water-guzzling NY-style construction high-rises nowadays and certainly not for the young professional or middle-class Capetonians. Not within affordability range for those with a fairly good income. Not even affordability for an upgrade or downgrade for what you would get.
      Watch the anti-tourism demonstrations in Barcelona and Rome. Locals fight for affordable rentals and their governments agree with them, can you believe.

        Reply this comment
  12. Rob Heilbronn 25 October, 2017, 07:50

    Folks, I am writing this note from Perth, Western Australia, where we went through this exact problem 15 years ago with continued, long-term reduction in rainfall. It doesn’t matter what has caused the problem but we, and you, are in a climate changing scenario. We in Perth have very successfully overcome the water supply shortage through consumption control, seawater desalination, recycling and managed aquifer recharge. How do you make it rain? I don’t know. How do you drop the temperature by a couple of degrees? I don’t know. But you cannot sit on your hands and hope that the problem with solve itself, because it won’t. Recycling alone will not solve the problem because, if you don’t have anything to recycle, the process is useless. Desalination has been our saviour and it could be yours, but it takes 2 years to design, build and commission a medium/large scale desalination plant from scratch. I suggest you look for good, second-hand plants from elsewhere in the world as an interim and cost-effective solution.

      Reply this comment
    • Dave Joubert 25 October, 2017, 18:38

      Thanks for the positivity. And I am not being sarcastic. Most of the comments about this article have been embarrassingly pathetic. I think the write wanted exactly to get this kind of feedback. Again, thanks.

        Reply this comment
    • Nikolas Radkov 13 November, 2017, 22:50

      Desalination plans are underway. Both for temporary short term yields and long term solutions. Oddly, this article seems to suggest that is not a thing??

        Reply this comment
  13. Dave Joubert 25 October, 2017, 18:43

    And Captain Hindsight (“Jo”) is also not helping. Let us just brainstorm about what MIGHT work for the future. There is a crisis.

      Reply this comment
  14. Tish 25 October, 2017, 21:06

    The finger pointing in the article is tiresome. You cannot blame the principal if a teacher behaves in an irresponsible manner. You have to fire the teacher. The DA were informed about the coming water-shortage in 2003 by The Camissa Report and again by the National Minister in 2009 and both were ignored. If local government knew about it and did not do what they’ve become so good at, with their loud toy -toying and noisy court-actions against national govt, in the same way for water infrastructure, then they are solely to blame.

    We have to be brutally realistic and take our heads out of the sand. CT is no longer for the people who drive the economy, it is fast becoming or have already become the playground for the super-rich, with or without water, They evidently do not have the interest of the ordinary, middle-class or poor in mind. Water was not a priority.

    There may very well be sinister reasons who knows. After watching the “Water & Power: A California Heist” documentary, it leaves one with jaw-dropping food for thought.

    The problem here is that no matter how dire and negligent local government is, their voters (incl moi) would rather face a firing squad, before burning THEM at the stakes, for obvious reasons,

    As you can see, I’ve run out of excuses. No matter how flat a pancake, it still has two sides.
    I try to be fair and learnt a lot from both sides.

      Reply this comment
  15. Karin Jamotte 2 November, 2017, 19:14

    Anthony Turton, I wonder wether you know about the desalination project pioneered by Prof. Loewenthal in the early 80s? He spent quite a long time in Israel working on desalination, with a degree of success. He was a Prof at UCT – I suspect that his writings may well have been archived there. Sadly he died quite young – when he still had so much to offer on this topic.

      Reply this comment

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