Western Cape could run out of dam water by 2019

Government has predicted fresh water demand will exceed supply, due to population growth, among other reasons.

FILE: This file photo shows the Theewaterskloof Dam near Cape Town on 6 May 2016. Picture: Aletta Harrison/EWN.

CAPE TOWN – The Western Cape government says the province could run out of fresh water in dams by 2019 if water resources are not managed properly.

Government has predicted fresh water demand will exceed supply, due to population growth and limited water resources.

Experts such as those at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) say the province will survive the current dry season, but they warn government needs to start implementing long-term solutions to increase supply before the situation reaches a critical level.

Environmental Affairs MEC Anton Bredell says government will have to look at how it manages water resources in preparation for a population increase in the Western Cape.

"Studies show that we're going to run out of water by 2019. Population growth is obviously one of the things we're going to need to manage."

Bredell says population growth will affect many sectors.

"You need to plan for that, to get ahead of the curve. People use resources. We will need to look at our water resource, but also sanitation, transport, hospitals, clinics, schools and all these things, there will be pressure on it."

In 2016 the province had a population of 6.4 million people and Bredell says the population is expected to grow by two million people in the next 15 years, or even sooner.


Meanwhile the WWF says weak water governance can be detrimental to South Africa’s fresh water future.

The fund says government cannot continue with business as usual while the country faces an uncertain and volatile future due to the effects of climate change.

Experts say existing infrastructure needs to be rehabilitated soon to mitigate against water scarcity.

The WWF’s Fresh Water senior manager Christine Colvin says the fund and other stakeholders, including officials from the Water and Sanitation Department, have been discussing two uncertain factors that could greatly impact the country’s water future - severe climate change and water governance.

“The worst case scenario is climate change getting worse, with government not able to fulfil its mandate of protecting water resources and ensuring compliance from polluters and industry. And the private sector not getting involved in helping to support a sustainable water future.”

Colvin says mitigating action should be taken by government and the private sector to avoid a worst case scenario.

“Planning fully for rehabilitating our existing engineered and ecological infrastructure is a key part of getting ready for a more uncertain and a more volatile future.”

Colvin says the key is for all sectors to work together as the responsibility is not only on government.


Last week, the provincial dam level average dropped to 31%, while Cape Town’s feeder dams averaged 33%.

The Western Cape water and sanitation department said while the water situation is concerning, it’s not yet at a crisis level.

Mayor Patricia de Lille requested provincial government make a disaster declaration over Cape Town, but the water and sanitation department said the drastic step was not yet needed.

Colvin says all spheres of government and the private sector will have to work together more effectively to ensure water security.

“WWF is trying to mobilise awareness and much more collective action to what do we need to do to not only improve our engineered infrastructure, but also to look at our ecological infrastructure in our upstream catchments.”

Kevin Winter from the University of Cape Town’s Future Water Institute says the changing political cycles hamper long-term plans.

“Our budgetary plans only last five years and then we enter a new cycle because the political cycle is actually governing the way in which it is managed. it means that planning is always short term.”

The provincial water and sanitation department is currently conducting a water audit to see which municipalities are managing water inefficiently.


It seems ground water may be the best solution to the Western Cape’s need for an increased water supply.

Western Cape government officials have been saying there are plans in place in case the province hits the worst case scenario - that the major dams run dry.

Experts say while the province may make it through this current dry season, no matter how much rainfall it gets during winter, the province will never be in the safe zone with its water supply.

Colvin says besides South Africa’s current ecological and engineered infrastructure needing a revamp to secure existing water supplies, it is necessary to tap into ground water sources to ensure the country’s water security.

“This drought has taught us we can no longer wait for the perfect conditions for how aquifers can be drawn into our main water supply. We’ve already got a great test case of the drilling that happened in Hermanus and the sustainable supplies that have come online there. Hermanus has effectively been drought-proofed through having access to groundwater resources.”

Colvin says worldwide, groundwater resources represent the single biggest store of fresh water on the planet and it needs to be mainstreamed into our future water supply.

One of local government’s long-term plans includes harvesting water from the Table Mountain group aquifer. This project will produce a yield of about 50 to 100 million litres of water per day for Cape Town.

Experts say government needs to accelerate the development of groundwater resources.

Colvin says tapping into the province's groundwater resources is key to securing our water security.

"That means looking after the recharge zones where rainwater infiltrates into these aquifers and looking after the aquifers themselves. It needs to be well-managed and sustainably managed. But we need to accelerate the development of groundwater resources."

Winter says the province also needs to seriously consider the significance of the Cape Flats aquifer - an underground reservoir covering about 700 square kilometres of the city.

"If we manage the Cape Flats Aquifer well enough, there's about a ten% yield every year that flows through that system that could provide us with extra water. That's an ideal place to be able to draw water."

Winter adds harvesting water from the Table Mountain group aquifer could have negative long-term ecological effects.


The Western Cape's drought task team says its primary concern right now is that a town or region could run out of water completely.

The team was set up last year January to deal with the impending drought disaster situation.

Colin Deiner, the chief director of the provincial disaster risk management team, says the province will not run out of water in its entirety as some municipalities are not experiencing water challenges.

“We are therefore focussing lots of attention on ensuring that we have a clear picture of the water situation in every municipality. We do this by periodically calling all municipalities to the disaster centre and spending time with them individually where we interrogate their water situation (ground water, surface water, restrictions and emergency plans) in the finest detail.”

Deiner says the team has however planned for every possible scenario. He says if a region should run dry, water will be transported into it via pipelines and tankers, or through underground resources if available.

“If you study the way we successfully dealt with the 2010/11 drought you will find that we were able to find alternative sources through exploration and equipping of water sources (sub-surface) quite rapidly.

“I wish to make it clear that we are not close to a scenario where we will be tankering water to various points in the province. The critical message is that we should not get complacent when we reach the winter rainfall season and that our conservation efforts should actually be strengthened at that time.”

Bredell says government realises the need for a holistic approach to managing the water situation.

“We’ll need to work together. There will be decisions where we’re going to differ from one another, but let’s debate the issues, let’s get the best intellect out there to support us. That’s what we’ve been doing, working with universities. We had a two-day workshop, bringing in people from Namibia to talk through the water issues, the water crisis and how they’ve pulled through. So that we can learn from one another.”

Bredell says he believes government will be able to manage the water situation effectively.

(Edited by Leeto M Khoza)