FOR BIODIVERSITY DAY ZERO IS ALREADY ON
While the whole world is watching with both interest and concern the first big city to run out of water, Cape Town citizens and the whole Western Cape are hard at work to push the Day Zero further into the South African winter, when rain is expected. A group of fruit farmers near Elgin have even donated a good part of their private water reserves in AID to the Cape Town citizens, putting their businesses at risk if the rain will not come soon.
South Africans are very adapting people; without losing their proverbial spirit, Capetonians are getting used to their new lifestyle where no flushing toilets and showering every second or third day, handwashing dishes with recycled water and collecting fresh water at the points are becoming the new chic and a conversation topic in most situations from taxi queues to parties to business meetings.
CONSIDERING OUR WATER FOOTPRINT
For the long term, though, more questions about reducing the city’s Water Footprint have been asked. Consuming water-wise foods as vegetables versus beef or ditching nuclear energy, which requires huge amounts of water from the Western Cape, in favour of water-saving infrastructures, like solar panels, have been hot subjects.
Image credit: SAWEA
Scientists have been looking for solutions. Gordon Maclear, the hydrogeologist who warned more than two decades ago about Cape Town edging slowly but surely towards a water crisis of epic proportions, has stepped forward again and suggested to install an underground metro. Horizontal galleries are far more efficient as a water-harvesting method than conventional vertical boreholes. Constructing lines beneath the city would solve the water crisis and ultimately alleviate traffic jams.
THE FORGOTTEN ECOSYSTEMS
The focus is so much on mitigating water shortages and social threats in the immediate, that the protection of our natural resources, our ecosystem and magnificent, internationally admired biodiversity, has completely slipped out of both government and public minds. Cape Town and the Cape are home to National Parks and a Marine Protected Areas. We should face the huge environmental problems related with the ongoing drought and with how the public is responding to it.
THE 2018 CRISIS
This is the third year of drought but 2018 is certainly the worse. Our eco-system is now on its knees due to the lack of precipitation and higher temperatures. The condition of the impoverished soils, the lack of mud and moisture necessary for nesting and, ultimately, the scarcity of food are big stressors. Wildlife is continuously threatened by the risk of bushfires and by predation, while migrating in search of water. On the other hand, trillions of insects and small reptiles but also amphibians, birds and small mammals, are suffering the loss of habitat in the wild and more micro-wildlife is dying in our gardens left to dry out.
Although it’s easier to recognise the immediate, destructive power of tornadoes, hurricanes and floods, a severe and prolonged drought can have very serious and permanent consequences. Plants, animals, climate, soils, even rocks, are all affected by lack of moisture and precipitation and the consequent deficiency of surface water. Some biotic and abiotic factors will win back when the drought is over; others will never recover again. Some wet habitats will disappear. When aquatic animals die, entire food chains and ecosystems are affected. Plants and animals diseases are likely to spread. Pollination is also affected as insects are dying. In the case of Cape Town, wild animals, horses and cattle from informal farming move in search of water and get run over by cars; snakes, baboons, predators come closer to the houses and become vulnerable to human conflict.
HOW TO HELP ANIMALS
The most important action is to prevent bushfires. Dry climate turn vegetation into flammables and it takes a small mistake to reduce habitats in ashes. According to the Cape Town Fire Department, the majority of the wildfires near the city are due to human negligence, mostly cigarettes and cooking devices not properly managed or put off. Paying maximum attention to prevent or report fires immediately, become crucial and an effective way to help animals.
Near to our homes it is important to manage our barriers, which could impede migration in some cases but could prevent road accidents in others. Ideally animals should be allowed to move across gardens and helped to leave safely. Putting out some additional water-filled containers is a good way to help wildlife. Placing a few of them in different sizes, will help creature such as squirrels, insects and birds. Placing a floating climb-out device in our pools to help animals who accidentally fall in, is also a good way to limit fatalities. Clearing your gardens by thick bushes and remove building rabble is a way to discourage rat nesting and, as a consequence, snakes.
THE DROUGHT IS A MARINE DISASTER TOO
A plastic bottle takes 500 years to dissolve in the ocean and millions of them are heading in AID towards the Mother City. Not all city suburbs are serviced by trucks for the collection of recyclables. Twenty-three city drop-off point have been allocated in the hope that all citizens will use them. Some areas are not connected properly and transport can be an issue to reach these points. It is not difficult to imagine the big impact this factor will have on marine wildlife.
IS THE CITY OF CAPE TOWN BREAKING THE LAW?
About 40 million litres of untreated sewage per day, with all their extra content of chemicals, disinfectants and oils, will continue to pour straight into the ocean from the submerged outfall pipes located about 1.4 km offshore Sea Point, Camps Bay and Hout Bay, as was exposed in 2014 by conservationist and marine photographer Jean Tresfon. He took a series of aerial images of large plumes of sewage stretching across the cobalt blue waters in front of Table Mountain. These pictures caused outrage on social media and an investigation was brought ahead to discover that “What is going out into the ocean is essentially a mixture of your raw sewage waste, as well as every chemical you use in the household, for medicinal or for cleaning purposes”, as explained by Professor Leslie Petrik from the University of the Western Cape’s Chemistry Department. Her breakthrough study at the Green Point outfall last year found the presence of dangerous toxic compounds in marine organisms.
In July 2017 was finally released the long awaited CSIR report which states that “no immediate ecological disaster is imminent as a result of effluent discharge through the Cape Town outfalls. This does not mean”, continues the report, “that there are no ecological impacts and human health risks associated with this practice; the counts of bacteria in shoreline water samples was high enough to suggest a significant periodic risk to human recreationally using nearshore waters”.
As Tresfon points out, this report also indicates the total outfall legal capacity, which is the maximum volume of water for which the outfall are licensed. “It’s clear,” he says, “that the City currently pumps more untreated effluent into the sea that they are legally entitled to”.
Now, with Day Zero approaching, Capetonians are being enabled to flush their toilets. Many citizens are using a lot more chemicals than before. Suggestions of using acids, bleach and even caustic soda to keep drains and germs under control were spread on social media. The question is: if the public is not allowed to dump chemicals into the ocean, why can the City? The South African law clearly forbids the dumping of dangerous substances into marine protected areas.
THE DESALINATION PLANTS
Cape Town population is increasing of 2.6% each year and the City current sewage system is already exceeding the legal limits. Rule number one to outcome prolonged droughts is to reduce water pollution in the affected area, as water becomes a precious resource to not compromise, at all costs.
A few desalination plants will soon be built in Granger Bay, Table Bay and Hout Bay, right next to the sewerage outfall.
We are questioning how the quality of the processed fresh water is going to be and how this will affect human and marine wildlife health in the long term.