The Western Cape drought


The Western Cape is in the throes of the worst drought in its history. Cape Town is about to be the first city in the world to face Day Zero. That is, the day that taps are turned off other than for strategic sites; that too, as long as water remains in the dams.

Volumes have been written about the drought but here is our take for your interest. Truth is we don’t know what will happen but some healthy insight and speculation will do no harm.

Day Zero was 11 April. This was moved to 11 May. Now, it is estimated at mid-June. The timing is interesting as nobody really knows what the impact of siltation will be in the dams. At what point will the water become muddy and at what point will the density of that mud make it impossible to pump or to purify the water to a drinkable state? Little is known about this doomsday scenario so the setting of Day Zero must be somewhat theoretical and I presume a safety margin has been incorporated in the Date. At Day Zero, all taps are turned off with the exception of key sites – hospitals, homes for the disabled and, informal settlements. The latter is very interesting as many claim the Poor have been gathering water from taps all along and it is just the Rich who will feel the pain. For those on boreholes, we trust the boreholes will not run dry. On the other hand, Cape Town foreshore hotels are pumping salt water from their foundations which are built below sea level. Now, this water is being run through in-house desalination plants to supply the hotel with pure water.

Of course, Capetonians are running for cover. A family member has installed a 5000 litre tank and has filled it with drinking water. Others have moved into Hermanus, for example, and begun to harvest water. Some interesting facts:

  •  Last weekend, looking for 5 litre bottles of water at the Spar for my son, firstly, there were none by Sunday and the manager informed me that of an order for 500 bottles, only 8 arrived. The reason is that the supplier “is servicing Cape Town first”.
  •  Rentable homes have dried up [excuse the pun] as Capetonians have rented homes to have available on the weekends for showering, washing etc and to live in permanently, if required. [Anecdote or true, the mind boggles.]
  • The Hermanus municipality has requested vigilance of your garden tap as people are filling water tanks with your garden hose and selling it in Cape Town and surrounds.
  • The Hermanus dam is just over 50% full and we have been informed that at 40%, penalties will begin to be imposed. Not too cool!


Who supplies water? To be honest, I thought the municipality supplied but they only purify and deliver from dams which are owned by central government. Key to this understanding is that Provincial government is practically only able to apply for a state of emergency and then, if they want the Defence Force involved, a national state of emergency needs to be proclaimed. Only the President can do that. In all of this bureaucracy, the use of power predominates. If the province is on the president’s side, you get action. If not, you risk abuse. There is a sense in the Western Cape that the latter applies right now. Hopefully, CR will be a better go-to man than the most recent resignee. We shall see. Point is every city in the country needs to be assessed given the recent experience and all the global warming warnings. Beaufort West ran dry and only some new boreholes saved it. Just because a town is small that does not mean it can be ignored; water security is a constitutional right as opposed to electricity which is obviously considered a luxury in terms of the Constitution. So Cape Town needs water truck aplenty immediately and the Army to keep guard and the peace at 200 water-collection points. When we’re through this mess, we need more dams or better still, water desalination plants. The aquifers are just too deep and the risk of salination of the aquifers just too high to continue to rely on deep-level boreholes. Government will need to find money for desalination plants but the PPP’s proposed by the likes of PSG seem to hold powerful promise; let’s hope sanity and competence prevail soonest. Talking to a friend in Sydney, he tells me that a “corrupt Labour government” put in a desalination plant there many years ago and now it’s a white elephant. Boy, could Cape Town do with one spare plant right now!


The political fallout has been most notable. As the Day drew near, the knives have gone out. Cape Town municipality has not covered itself in glory by any means and too-little-too-late has become the order of the day. Of course, money was a problem from the get-go but even if it was available, little was done until panic set in. Now the blame-game predominates and fingers are pointing outwards. Listening to CapeTalk for a day is enough to realise the knives are out. Mmusi has written a great article Arise, Cape Town, Arise but it truly feels like oration in the face of a possible power shift. Between Patricia de Lille and the ANC, we could see serious fallout politically.


Against this backdrop, the people of Cape Town are very interesting. There have been outstanding examples of community in the face of calamity. The school Smart Meter water saving initiative has saved millions of litres of water. Initially sponsored by Shoprite, 100’s of businesses have come alongside to fit Smart Meters at more schools across the province. A lady I heard has installed a catchment tank from her roof and then sponsored two poorer homes to do the same. How’s that for community!? However, there is something else I hear beginning to rise in Cape Town and that is Stoicism. A stoic person can endure hardship or pain without showing their feelings or complaining. That spirit, so prevalent amongst the veterans of the Wars, is beginning to rise in Cape Town. “We better get on with it” has replaced “What the hell is going on?” And you can feel its influence. Want a pedi or hair wash, take your own water. No more showering at the Virgin just get into your bucket at home as part of your 50 litres and pour the grey water on your plants you care about. To that point, businesses are deciding now to close down and let their staff work from home and be able to collect water supplies daily from the water-points – pre-planned and communicated; not last-minute panic. The farmers of Grabouw have released 10bn litres of water from their dams to Cape Town. Voluntarily and simply because they have been blessed with good watered crops so, through the danger-point of crop failure, they are taking the risk of releasing possibly next year’s water to a community that needs it now. Stoic actions displayed by people who share their compassion and grit; stoical people. I believe that that spirit will carry Cape Town through this catastrophe. Don’t under-estimate the stakes or the potential for rebellion, but somehow people are beginning to see Others as they face their own fears. I believe in that “stuff” even if my readers may have a different view. In crisis, leadership arises and people do extraordinary things. And remember, if dams normally enjoy, say, a 50% top-up to overflow by the end of a Winter, getting a 50% top-up off zero, is very different. In other words, if dams have a normal top-up this Winter, it could still occur that Cape Town runs out of water again in the Summer of 2019. Scary indeed!


As a consequence, property values will be affected. But to what extent nobody knows. So far the slowdown has just been the inevitable drain of a struggling economy and few articles I have read have evidenced the paucity of water as a reason. To that point, tourism has perceptibly been hampered and will be so until water supplies return to normal. My sense is that catastrophe will result in property price declines. Just logically this will occur. However, anything less, coupled with an improving economy on the back of recent political events, will not cripple property values. Put another way, a return to good rains this Winter will make the current slowdown a blip and a good desalination plant PPP will even raise prices slowly. Semigration will continue as few employees would walk away from a promotion to Cape Town if water is at a manageable stage.


Then, for those of us who have faith, we trust the recent rains and the political events spell a turning point in the state of affairs of our beautiful, tortured country.


Hope you enjoyed the read as much as I have enjoyed aggregating some of my thoughts about this current state of affairs. I trust that all the Doomsday scenarios will be spared and that water sustainability across the country will be part of the Marshall [Ramaphosa]Plan to get South Africans working again. Who knows so let’s just keep watching this space? As for Homeloan Junction, we understand stoicism. Anyone who came out of Sub-Prime really does.


Yours in Property.

Jack Trevena

Jack Trevena

With over 30 years of experience in the banking and home loan industry, my hope it is share what I have learnt over the years with my blogging community, inspire conversation around the subject and in the process discover unique insights into this ever changing environment.
Jack Trevena

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