Battle to save Cape Flats aquifer
March 2017 is Water Action Month and I want to humbly add to the conversation specifically with regard to what the elected stewards of our natural water resource say in public and what they do behind the scenes.
The PHA Food and Farming Campaign insight here is useful for the wider citizens’ body, dedicated as it has been for eight years in the protection and management of the Philippi Horticultural Area and Cape Flats aquifer – the city’s unique food and water resource.
The Department of Water and Sanitation’s Rashid Khan says farmers need to curtail water use by 10%. And yet last year, in the middle of a crippling drought, the regional head gave a water licence to Oakland City to pave over the recharge zone of the Cape Flats aquifer.
An aquifer is an underground dam that needs a recharge or catchment area free of roofs and roads, pipes and drains (urban development) that can capture rainwater in soils and wetlands to replenish the resource.
Khan demanded that farmers cut down water use in an effort to save water, yet he himself is contributing to the destruction of the very resource we are trying to protect in the Philippi Horticultural Area.
The PHA is virtually the only drought-proof farming area in South Africa.
To his credit, Khan does not favour the release of national drought-relief funds for the province. He rightly suspects the municipality is trying to secure money to fund the desalination plant.
Why is desalination a bad idea?
All desalination plants use fossil fuel energy-supply. Thus, it is insanely utilising a fossil fuel-based “solution” for a fossil fuel caused problem – climate change!
According to Environment MEC Anton Bredell, speaking last week at a Press Club lunch, setting up a 450 megalitre plant can cost up to R15billion with an operating cost of R1.2bn a year. A number of plants, according to Bredell, could provide 10% of the city’s needs.
But what is ignored is that the Cape Flats Aquifer – a free water source, can provide 30% of the city’s water needs – according the UN chairperson of Underground Water, Professor Yongxin Xu.
The Cape Flats Aquifer is unique in the world according to Dr Chris Hartnady of Umvoto Africa. In May 2016, the MECs of Environment and Agriculture, Bredell and Alan Winde, launched with great fanfare the forward-looking AgriSmart policy in which farmers are encouraged to become drought resilient through better soil management and other conservation techniques.
The AgriSmart policy identifies the value of the PHA as key in building a climate-resilient city. Yet both MECs have signed off approvals for developments and silica sand mining in the PHA that will delete the highest producing agricultural farmlands per hectare in the country, simultaneously deleting the Cape Flats aquifer’s primary recharge zone.
The PHA Campaign has appealed these. In June 2016, at a drought dialogue, André Roux, the director of sustainable resource management of the WC Department of Agriculture, noted dam levels at 25% were down from 35% in 2015, while encouraging farmers to practise conservation agriculture methods to save water.
Yet at the same time, he was authoring the paperwork to facilitate the building of a massive development: of 20 000 houses, shopping centres, private prisons and schools – all over the aquifer’s recharge zone. On March 1, mayor Patricia de Lille stated that infrastructure plans for the water supply system remain on track. None of these take into account the Cape Flats aquifer and yet suddenly pumping water out of the aquifer is the solution to our crisis.
Does this now mean that the mayor is going to respond to the PHA Food and Food Farming Campaign’s four-year long appeals to protect, manage and invest research in the aquifer?
The campaign hosted two aquifer seminars in 2014 and 2016 with no interest or response from the city. Does the drought crisis now also mean the mayor will acknowledge the value of the PHA, and abandon her insane efforts to rezone prime agricultural land for middle-class housing that can be built elsewhere?
A city report from 2010 identifies 10 000 hectares of developable land elsewhere in Cape Town, closer to existing bulk services. Will the mayor respect the Western Cape Department of Sports, Culture and Recreation MEC’s tribunal ruling that turned down a rezone appeal for a development in the PHA, and declared the PHA and CFA a heritage resource worthy of protection?
The mayor says the first phase of her proposed desalination plan will cost R8bn to yield only a 10th of our water needs. We therefore suspect the actual desalination project costs are more in the order of R80bn and not the R15bn quoted.
An annual maintenance bill of R1.2bn will have to be underwritten by taxpayers. The campaign suspects that once again the city will opt for imported solutions (desalination is utilised mainly in deserts, affordable only to oil-producing countries) – that entail gigantic tenders for enthusiastic party donors.
The mayor says water reuse is also being considered. This is expected to yield an average of 220 million litres a day. The cost includes R4.5bn capital expenditure and R500 000 operating expenditure.
Now I hope the mayor is going to spend some of that money on reversing the plumbing at two of our waste-water treatment plants – Mitchells Plain and Strandfontein. Huge amounts of energy and water are used to clean waste water and this is dumped into the sea.
This water can be pumped into ponding areas in the nearby PHA during summer and dry years to artificially recharge the Cape Flats aquifer.