Dams half full, but too early to call for easing restrictions

Cape Town's dam levels rose to 50.3% on Tuesday as streams and rivers swollen with rain from the weekend's intense cold front, flowed into the storage dams.

There is now double the amount of water in the city's supply dams than there was at this time last year, when the level stood at 25.1%.

The level will increase further this week with run-off and as the snow on mountain peaks in the catchment area begins to melt.

But despite the recent good rains that have seen the dam levels rise from a low of 20% in May, experts have warned that the City may be jumping the gun in wanting to reduce the level of water restrictions before the end of the rainy season.

The City's announcement last week, that its updated water data meant that it could rule out a Day Zero in 2019, was welcomed. However, some water experts say there are still two unknowns: the first is what the rainfall will be like in July and August. The second is whether Capetonians will keep saving water as well as they have been once restrictions are eased and tariffs lowered, or will they revert back to the bad old ways of water wastage?

Read: No Day Zero for 2019 – City of Cape Town

The national Department of Water and Sanitation calls the shots with regard to water allocation, both how much is allocated and to whom. It has said that it will not lift restrictions until the Cape supply dams are 85% full.

It will review the situation in October at the end of the "hydrological year" – the end of the Western Cape's rainy season – unless dams reach 85% before October, in which case the department will drop restrictions.

Restrictions 

However, Cape Town Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson is hoping to persuade the national government to go for a phased approach, and ease restrictions before reaching the 85% level.

Neilson argues that while there is still a need to have "adequate" water restrictions, there is no need to keep to the strict level B restrictions if more water is available.

"We need to have in-between steps and not just a 'big bang' and remove all restrictions. If we can go to a less restrictive system, we must do so. It also means a lower tariff," Neilson said.

The new higher water tariffs kick in this month. The City is legally allowed to change water tariffs only once a year with the annual budget. However, different tariffs are linked to different levels of water restrictions: the stricter the restrictions, the higher the tariff. In this way, there can be different tariffs imposed within one financial year, depending on the level of water restrictions.

Neilson is seeking a meeting Water and Sanitation Minister Gugile Nkwinti to discuss the reduction of restrictions before October.

UCT academic Kevin Winter from the environmental and geographical department, said the next eight weeks would be crucial for Cape Town's water supplies.

"There are still a lot of unknowns ahead. Obviously, we have been very lucky. To have a 6% rise in dam levels in a week is amazing, but we don't know what July and August will be like."

Winter said in 2006, when water restrictions had been relaxed, Capetonians had doubled the amount of water they used within 12 months.

"The big fear is are we going to ratchet up our consumption as we did in 2006?"

Day Zero

On the positive side, while the City had been in a "fair amount of chaos" at the start of the water crisis, it now had much better control over water demand, and had a world-class system of pressure management. This saved 62 million litres of water a day.

Winter welcomed the removal of Day Zero from 2019, and said it was bad for Cape Town's reputation to have the symbol of Day Zero hanging over it.

"We had to get that monkey off our backs."

Wits professor Bob Scholes of the Global Change and Sustainability Research Institute said the City's decision that there would be no Day Zero in 2019 would have been fundamentally a technical one.

Read more: The tow-an-iceberg plan being floated to ease Cape Town drought

"It would not make a lot of sense to say there was going to be a Day Zero if the data showed that there wasn't going to be one."

Scholes said there was a possibility that the 85% dam level would not be reached this year, and it might be that water restrictions would be relaxed but not totally lifted.

He said the water crisis had been a strong learning curve for City officials, politicians and the public.

"But the question is, what is the retention time of that learning, and how long before we go back to our wicked ways?" Scholes said.

Environmental teacher and activist Patrick Dowling said it was a relief that Cape Town did not have to be the first major city to have the taps turned off.

High water consumption ways

Dowling believed the water crisis had brought home the message about the value of water and how it was being wasted "even to the non-environmentally minded".

"For instance, nurseries are no longer saying things like 'special today - pansies', but rather 'have you got your mulch?' And a lot of people who could afford it have invested in rainwater tanks and grey water systems.

"But I think the City is jumping the gun a bit regarding relaxing of restrictions. The dams filling up is something to be happy about, but in terms of the precautionary principle, it is a bit early to get over-joyous about it and talk about easing restrictions," Dowling said.

While it was good to see the winter rainfall pattern changing back, the climate change predictions were that the rainfall in the western half of the Western Cape would decrease and temperatures increase.

"Never again will we be able to go back to our old high water consumption ways. A lot of people have learned that they can live on far less," Dowling said.

Asked to comment, Sputnik Ratau, spokesperson for the Department of Water and Sanitation, said the lifting or relaxing of the water restrictions would be decided by "the reality on the ground" in October.

He said if restrictions were eased now, it might "encourage people to let consumption patterns go haywire".

"It is still early days and I'm not sure why they want to hurry it through. We will be in discussions with the City and make them understand why we need to make an assessment at the end of the hydrological cycle in October. At the moment, until the hydrological year comes to an end, restrictions remain as they are," Ratau said.

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