Cape of Water

Cape Town is not only surrounded by water, but enmeshed with water, with 14 rivers and 10 wetlands, and has been shortlisted for accreditation as a Ramsar Wetland City. Wetlands sit between the surface water bodies and groundwater, and include vleis (marshes), lakes, rivers, ponds, estuaries and lagoons. Besides providing a habitat for all manner of creatures, they are home to plants that can filter and clean the water of pollutants. A Wetland City commits to conserve and carefully manage urban and peri-urban wetlands for their ecological and socio-economic benefits.

Cape Town is embedded in an extraordinary water system at the nexus of three of South Africa’s 22 strategic water catchment areas — Table Mountain itself and the neighbouring Boland and Groot Winterhoek ranges — and three of the country’s 37 strategic groundwater areas — the Table Mountain Group, Cape Flats and Atlantis Aquifers.

The Cape Peninsula has a Mediterranean climate with mild wet winters and warm dry summers. Rainfall is highest on the mountains, where it becomes streams and then rivers flowing towards the ocean, collecting in wetlands rich in biodiversity, which clean water and prevent flooding, and percolating through sand and rock into underground aquifers.

Cape Peninsular River Catchments. Source: CGS

“Once we have living water back in our city, we have a living city.” Caron von Zeil, Reclaim Camissa

Protecting Our Water Sources

The webs between water flow, biodiversity, human actions and infrastructure are complex and impossible to separate, yet government policy, academic research and municipal actions often act as if they are. The main factors affecting water health and security are expanding urban populations, water-intensive lifestyles, and not protecting water source areas.

Groundwater and surface water are intricately entangled – during the dry season, perennial rivers flow is fed by groundwater discharges – so all 22 of the strategic water catchments need to have their overlapping groundwater areas protected as well. South Africa’s water source areas are threatened by unsustainable agricultural practices that use pesticides and chemical fertilisers, urban development, alien invasive vegetation, climate change, fires and mining.

At a national level, water is protected and affected by a mosaic of legislation, managed by different government departments, for example:

  • Chapter 3 of the National Water Act
  • The Water and Sanitation Draft Bill
  • Section 24(2A) of the National Environment Management Act
  • Section 49 of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act
  • Chapter 4 of the Biodiversity Act
  • Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act

At a local level, there is also a maze of legislation, policy and politics. Developments are planned on floodplains and aquifer recharge zones, rivers are canalised and redirected, wetlands are dredged and drained, aquifers are tapped in ecologically sensitive areas, salination of groundwater creeps further and further inland, even treated waste water still contains pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, which are increasingly contaminating our groundwater.

Our greatest ally when protecting water is nature herself; ecological systems are resilient and have been working for millions of years. Working against nature inevitably brings problems, compounded when humans in government, business and civil society are at odds. Water belongs to the whole nation — our most critical challenge is working out how we can collaboratively manage and protect our most precious resource, treating it as Commons that all share, and not commodity for sale.

South Africa’s Water in Numbers

  • Only 13% of our water source areas are under some level of formal protection in terms of The National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, 2000 (NEMPAA)
  • 9% of South Africans rely directly on springs, rivers and wetlands for water
  • 18% of South Africans rely on communal taps
  • Roughly 3% of SA’s water is lost to alien plants
  • 60% of our river ecosystems are threatened and 23% are critically endangered.
  • 65% of our wetlands are threatened and 48% are critically endangered

“Once we have living water back in our city, we have a living city.” Caron von Zeil, Reclaim Camissa

Cape Town is not only surrounded by water, but enmeshed with water, with 14 rivers and 10 wetlands, and has been shortlisted for accreditation as a Ramsar Wetland City. Wetlands sit between the surface water bodies and groundwater, and include vleis (marshes), lakes, rivers, ponds, estuaries and lagoons. Besides providing a habitat for all manner of creatures, they are home to plants that can filter and clean the water of pollutants. A Wetland City commits to conserve and carefully manage urban and peri-urban wetlands for their ecological and socio-economic benefits.

Cape Town is embedded in an extraordinary water system at the nexus of three of South Africa’s 22 strategic water catchment areas — Table Mountain itself and the neighbouring Boland and Groot Winterhoek ranges — and three of the country’s 37 strategic groundwater areas — the Table Mountain Group, Cape Flats and Atlantis Aquifers.

The Cape Peninsula has a Mediterranean climate with mild wet winters and warm dry summers. Rainfall is highest on the mountains, where it becomes streams and then rivers flowing towards the ocean, collecting in wetlands rich in biodiversity, which clean water and prevent flooding, and percolating through sand and rock into underground aquifers.

Cape Peninsular River Catchments. Source: CGS

Protecting Our Water Sources

The webs between water flow, biodiversity, human actions and infrastructure are complex and impossible to separate, yet government policy, academic research and municipal actions often act as if they are. The main factors affecting water health and security are expanding urban populations, water-intensive lifestyles, and not protecting water source areas.

Groundwater and surface water are intricately entangled – during the dry season, perennial rivers flow is fed by groundwater discharges – so all 22 of the strategic water catchments need to have their overlapping groundwater areas protected as well. South Africa’s water source areas are threatened by unsustainable agricultural practices that use pesticides and chemical fertilisers, urban development, alien invasive vegetation, climate change, fires and mining.

At a national level, water is protected and affected by a mosaic of legislation, managed by different government departments, for example:

  • Chapter 3 of the National Water Act
  • The Water and Sanitation Draft Bill
  • Section 24(2A) of the National Environment Management Act
  • Section 49 of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act
  • Chapter 4 of the Biodiversity Act
  • Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act

At a local level, there is also a maze of legislation, policy and politics. Developments are planned on floodplains and aquifer recharge zones, rivers are canalised and redirected, wetlands are dredged and drained, aquifers are tapped in ecologically sensitive areas, salination of groundwater creeps further and further inland, even treated waste water still contains pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, which are increasingly contaminating our groundwater.

Our greatest ally when protecting water is nature herself; ecological systems are resilient and have been working for millions of years. Working against nature inevitably brings problems, compounded when humans in government, business and civil society are at odds. Water belongs to the whole nation — our most critical challenge is working out how we can collaboratively manage and protect our most precious resource, treating it as Commons that all share, and not commodity for sale.

South Africa’s Water in Numbers

  • Only 13% of our water source areas are under some level of formal protection in terms of The National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, 2000 (NEMPAA)
  • 9% of South Africans rely directly on springs, rivers and wetlands for water
  • 18% of South Africans rely on communal taps
  • Roughly 3% of SA’s water is lost to alien plants
  • 60% of our river ecosystems are threatened and 23% are critically endangered.
  • 65% of our wetlands are threatened and 48% are critically endangered

Catching the Rain

Steenbras Dam, Boland Water Source Area

Most of Cape Town’s clean drinking water comes from water catchments in the Boland and Groot Winterhoek mountain fynbos areas to the east and north-east of the city. Water flows down towards the sea in rivers such as the Berg, Riviersonderend, Palmiet and Steenbras, and is stored in 14 dams which have a collective capacity of approximately 900 000 ML (900 000 000 000 litres).

The bulk of this is provided by the Theewaterskloof, Voëlvlei, Berg River, Wemmershoek, and the Steenbras Upper and Lower dams — the rest are much smaller and only contribute 0.4% to total capacity. The three largest dams are owned or managed by the National Department of Water and Sanitation.

Water is transferred from these catchment areas via a system of dams and pipelines known as the Western Cape Water Supply System, managed either by the City of Cape Town or the National Department of Water and Sanitation. The WCWSS also covers the West Coast district municipality and local municipalities of Drakenstein, Stellenbosch and Witzenberg. Cape Town utilises approximately 64% of this water, agriculture around 29% and other urban areas the remaining 7%.

During times of adequate rainfall, every day around 750 ML of treated, drinking water is distributed to nearly 650 000 households in the Greater Cape Town area. Industry uses 4% and commercial use is 12% of total water consumption. This is achieved via 85 pump stations, 26 large reservoirs, 103 smaller reservoirs and about 10 700 km of pipeline, ranging from those wide enough for two people to walk abreast to the standard domestic 15 mm or 20 mm pipes.

Drinking water needs to comply with National water quality standards, and around 16 000 samples of drinking water are laboratory tested annually from around 300 sampling points. The “pristine” undeveloped nature of the catchment areas contributes to the excellent quality of the city’s water. However, Cape Town’s water sources are tea-coloured from plant matter that is dissolved in the water, and is soft and acidic. This is corrected during the potable water treatment process at treatment plants. Agricultural practices using chemical fertilisers and pesticides or urban development within catchment areas can negatively affect the quality of water collected in dams. So protecting these catchment areas is critically important.

Invasive alien plants are more water-thirsty than the indigenous fynbos, which can also impact water sources. The Working for Water programme helps to clear alien vegetation in catchment areas and creates employment opportunities for local communities. The Boland Mountains provide 97% of Cape Town’s water supply and lose 4.1% of their water to invasive alien trees. Without previous alien clearing, Cape Town may well have completely run out of water during the 2017/18 drought crisis.

Woodhead Dam on Table Mountain. Photo: Simon Sephton

Woodhead Dam during constructions, showing the wall’s deep foundations, and the railway track used for transporting equipment and materials. (Supplied by Environmental and Heritage Resource Centre.) Source: COCT Springs Strategy, 2015

Table Mountain is also a catchment area with over 30 springs and 5 dams, which at one stage supplied the whole city, and was the water source from which the modern city grew. The dams also provided a head of water that from 1895 generated electricity for electric street lights before many other places in the world. When the city’s population growth increased the demand for water even more, dams were built on more distant catchments, creating the supply system that exists today. These days Table Mountain contributes less than 2% of Cape Town’s total water supply.

The Graaf Hydo-Powered Electric Lighting Staion at Molteno Reservoir. Source: Reclaim Camissa

Cracks in the System

Of all the water on the planet, a finite amount which has been cycling for millions of years, we are only able to drink 2%. In her talk at the TEDx Cape Town event in 2011, and the film Place of Sweet Waters, hydrologist Caron von Ziel describes the notion of committing hydrocide, the death of a river due to social misuse. The Cape Peninsula boasts one of the most unique and bountiful systems of water sources anywhere in the world, yet this could be our future.

Award-winning documentary filmmakers Francois Verster and Simon Wood’s film Scenes from a Dry City vividly shows some day to day realities of life during that time, and highlights the vast inequalities experienced by Cape Town’s residents when it comes to water access and services.

Approximately 98% of Cape Town’s water comes from dams, which makes the city vulnerable in times of low rainfall. Changing rainfall patterns linked to climate change brought three years of drought from 2015 to 2017, including the two driest years on record. In 2017 and 2018 the dams levels became so low that the city faced the prospect of the water supply being turned off. This Day Zero was averted through massive reduction of water use under Level 6B restrictions of 50 litres per person per day and various other initiatives by the City and citizens, to a total usage of around 500 ML per day.

Residents became experts at recycling water from washing for use in toilets and gardens, and those who could afford to put in rainwater tanks and greywater systems did so, or sank boreholes. During this time, better off Capetonians with proper municipal services got a taste of the lived reality of the less fortunate who had been surviving on this amount of water for years, having to carry it from communal taps, without sanitation at home.

The 2020 winter rains have been plentiful; the Theewaterskloof Dam overflowed for the first time in nearly a decade. This iconic water body two years before was a barren wasteland with a few muddy pools. The water crisis exposed the weaknesses in the water metabolism of Cape Town, showing how everything is connected, and that many of the issues stem from whether we treat water as a commodity and a sewer, or shared Commons between humans and the biosphere.

Good rainy seasons and better water practices have restored supply back to no restrictions with water tariffs. However, the problem hasn’t gone away. As the planet becomes warmer due to human actions, droughts are expected to increase in frequency and severity. As urban areas continue to grow, and climate change and environmental degradation affects the rainfall and land patterns, water sources have come under pressure to diversify and become more sustainable.

Upcoming large infrastructure developments like the Berg River-Voëlvlei Augmentation Scheme, which involves the diversion of surplus winter water from the Berg River for storage in the Voëlvlei Dam, may add up to 23 million m3 of water per annum. However, this still relies on catching the rain. What happens if it does not fall?

In 2018 the City of Cape Town presented a vision for a diversified water supply however these projections have already run into complications. How can you reclaim water from the ocean and wastewater if it is filled with chemicals? How can you drill into aquifers if you don’t know the full impact on biodiversity and ecology?

Alternative water sources like groundwater extraction, desalination and waste water reclamation are all part of the mix of current and potential water sources. Of significance is the large volume of water planned from water reuse (26 Mil Kl pa), which is water recovery from sewage, and water to be drawn from desalination (18 Mil Kl pa). The projected costs for these are very high, the volumes are comparatively large compared to other sources, and both are contaminated with persistent chemical pollutants.

Despite optimism around desalination to ameliorate the drought, none of the three emergency plants built in 2018 are still operational due to water quality issues, which in the case of the Waterfront plant is the subject of litigation. Despite this, the City is still planning another permanent desalination plant at a cost of R1.8 billion, with a capacity of 50 million litres per day by 2026. There are also concerns around extraction of groundwater from the peninsula’s fragile aquifer system, and the proximity of drill sites to biodiversity hotspots.

Read More >

Of all the water on the planet, a finite amount which has been cycling for millions of years, we are only able to drink 2%. In her talk at the TEDx Cape Town event in 2011, and the film Place of Sweet Waters, hydrologist Caron von Ziel describes the notion of committing hydrocide, the death of a river due to social misuse. The Cape Peninsula boasts one of the most unique and bountiful systems of water sources anywhere in the world, yet this could be our future.

Approximately 98% of Cape Town’s water comes from dams, which makes the city vulnerable in times of low rainfall. Changing rainfall patterns linked to climate change brought three years of drought from 2015 to 2017, including the two driest years on record. In 2017 and 2018 the dams levels became so low that the city faced the prospect of the water supply being turned off. This Day Zero was averted through massive reduction of water use under Level 6B restrictions of 50 litres per person per day and various other initiatives by the City and citizens, to a total usage of around 500 ML per day.

Residents became experts at recycling water from washing for use in toilets and gardens, and those who could afford to put in rainwater tanks and greywater systems did so, or sank boreholes. During this time, better off Capetonians with proper municipal services got a taste of the lived reality of the less fortunate who had been surviving on this amount of water for years, having to carry it from communal taps, without sanitation at home.

Award-winning documentary filmmakers Francois Verster and Simon Wood’s film Scenes from a Dry City vividly shows some day to day realities of life during that time, and highlights the vast inequalities experienced by Cape Town’s residents when it comes to water access and services.

The 2020 winter rains have been plentiful; the Theewaterskloof Dam overflowed for the first time in nearly a decade. This iconic water body two years before was a barren wasteland with a few muddy pools. The water crisis exposed the weaknesses in the water metabolism of Cape Town, showing how everything is connected, and that many of the issues stem from whether we treat water as a commodity and a sewer, or shared Commons between humans and the biosphere.

Good rainy seasons and better water practices have restored supply back to no restrictions with water tariffs. However, the problem hasn’t gone away. As the planet becomes warmer due to human actions, droughts are expected to increase in frequency and severity. As urban areas continue to grow, and climate change and environmental degradation affects the rainfall and land patterns, water sources have come under pressure to diversify and become more sustainable.

Upcoming large infrastructure developments like the Berg River-Voëlvlei Augmentation Scheme, which involves the diversion of surplus winter water from the Berg River for storage in the Voëlvlei Dam, may add up to 23 million m3 of water per annum. However, this still relies on catching the rain. What happens if it does not fall?

In 2018 the City of Cape Town presented a vision for a diversified water supply however these projections have already run into complications. How can you reclaim water from the ocean and wastewater if it is filled with chemicals? How can you drill into aquifers if you don’t know the full impact on biodiversity and ecology?

Alternative water sources like groundwater extraction, desalination and waste water reclamation are all part of the mix of current and potential water sources. Of significance is the large volume of water planned from water reuse (26 Mil Kl pa), which is water recovery from sewage, and water to be drawn from desalination (18 Mil Kl pa). The projected costs for these are very high, the volumes are comparatively large compared to other sources, and both are contaminated with persistent chemical pollutants.

Despite optimism around desalination to ameliorate the drought, none of the three emergency plants built in 2018 are still operational due to water quality issues, which in the case of the Waterfront plant is the subject of litigation. Despite this, the City is still planning another permanent desalination plant at a cost of R1.8 billion, with a capacity of 50 million litres per day by 2026. There are also concerns around extraction of groundwater from the peninsula’s fragile aquifer system, and the proximity of drill sites to biodiversity hotspots.

Read More >

Ground Water

“Strange thing – underground water… It is water in 3D that moves through pores and cracks and past impermeable obstacles underneath us. And the rock type, sand or clay beneath us, determines how it flows and how close it gets to the surface. Every now and again it pops up in the form of a natural spring – like the Newlands spring. Sometimes there are several layers, stacked at different depths. Some places it gets replenished with the rainy season. In others it has been encapsulated for thousands of years – it is, literally, ancient water.” Klaudia Schachtschneider, Water Beneath Our Feet

Currently approximately 2% of Cape Town’s drinking water comes from groundwater sources ie aquifers, boreholes and springs. There are a number of freshwater basins around the Cape Peninsula, but the story of Cape Town’s groundwater is in large part unknown and unseen.

Source: Caron von Zeil

As the urban sprawl has expanded, water catchments and sinks have been paved over with concrete and buildings, and wetlands dredged and drained. Beneath this, ancient aquifers collect water making its way down through sand, soil and rock strata, holding vast stores of our most precious resource, surrounded by oceans filled with salts, microbial contamination and manmade chemical pollution, in danger of encroaching due to human activity.

There are three aquifers beneath the Cape Metropolitan Area, interacting with the water bodies and sources that we see at the surface — the Table Mountain Group, Cape Flats and Atlantis Aquifers. Depending on the composition and arrangement of sand, soil and different geological formations, aquifers are unconfined, where the water table is closer to the surface, or confined, which are deeper artesian water bodies beneath layers of rock.

Residents, industry and the City of Cape Town have been tapping into groundwater for many years. However, the water crisis saw hundreds of new boreholes being drilled, and groundwater being given a more significant role in the City’s bulk water provision plan. All groundwater in South Africa is a national asset regulated by the state, and the National Department of Water and Sanitation licenses large scale use. Municipal by-laws govern smaller commercial and residential users and in 2019, there were 22 000 registered boreholes in Cape Town, though the actual number is higher.

“Like any renewable resource, if we take out more than is going in over the long term, groundwater can run out.” WWF Groundwater Fact Sheet

WWF has recently completed an investigation into boreholes in two pilot areas, Newlands and Epping, funded by ABinBev, who utilise spring water from their Newlands property in their brewing operations. The study sought to grow a groundwater monitoring network among residents and businesses in order to understand how many boreholes there really are, how much water was being drawn, and if it was being adequately replenished by rainfall. As climate change and environmental degradation impact water sources, unmonitored and unregulated abstraction of groundwater is a risk to water security, so how do we manage our water Commons in a way that balances the rights of citizens with economy and ecology?

Building on the pilot study, WWF, ABinBev and the Embassy of Denmark celebrated in October 2020 the signing of an R11 million agreement under the banner of the Table Mountain Water Source Partnership. Other partners include the City of Cape Town, the Department of Water and Sanitation, UCT, UWC, Nedbank Green Trust, Sanlam and Green Cape. According to WWF, collective stewardship and a partnership approach is the best way to protect our groundwater, where many different stakeholders can contribute to the governance of groundwater, starting with monitoring and open information sharing.

“There might be many owners of water infrastructure (the borehole), but the water is still not ours to use without regard for the collective. Overuse will be to the detriment of us all, as we eat into our emergency water supply.” Klaudia Schachtschneider, The Water Beneath Our Feet

Mountain of Springs

According to archival records there are thirty-six artesian springs around Table Mountain. Thirty-two have been located, of which only 13 are listed by the municipality. Studies and monitoring of these has been patchy and in some instances controversial due to competing interests. Prior to the World Cup in 2010, Table Mountain’s springs were largely forgotten, and in 1994 had been struck off the City’s asset register. The Albion Spring was until recently the only one connected to the bulk water supply system.

Some springs are available for the public to collect from, a few feed into the municipal system, some are used for irrigation, and since the 1690s, used in the production of beer. However, a significant amount of spring water flows wasted into the stormwater system. As the city faced the possibility of Day Zero, with increases in water prices and water restrictions, this resource again rose to the attention of city water management and the public.

Hydrologist Caron von Zeil is the founder of Reclaim Camissa and has spent years researching Table Mountain’s springs and telling powerful stories of their significance. Focusing on the Camissa River basin, her vision is that

“…one day, the people of Cape Town will gather around our common heritage of CAMISSA — the very waters that defined the location of the city, reflecting the public past and embracing a new civic infrastructure, inspired by a deliberate recognition and respect for the social, cultural and ecological significance of this Water. Linking the past with the present, to develop a different model for our future, by connecting people to this vital resource, we celebrate the Water that links mountain to sea, past to future, and people to the Environment.” Reclaim Camissa Trust, 2010

Table Mountain is unique in that it is a mountain catchment feeding a huge aquifer that extends all the way to the Boland mountains beneath the Steenbras Dam. It is the only strategic water source area entirely covered by urban settlement. In addition to rainfall, its famous table-cloth of cloud condenses onto fynbos vegetation, providing a constant source of water feeding more than 30 springs. The topographical features of the Table Mountain are such that springs naturally occur in such abundance they were able to supply all of Cape Town’s water needs until the 1880s.

Some of the Table Mountain Springs. Map Source: Changhong Wu, UWC

Field of Springs, Oranjezicht. Source: COCT Springs Strategy, 2015

Position of Stadsfontein Spring, Cape Town, 1786. Source: COCT Springs Strategy, 2015

Quantitatively, the largest of the City Bowl’s springs, is the Stadtsfontein — with 2.5 to 3.5 million litres of water flowing, daily. Neighbours of the original Oranjezicht farm complained about access to water that ran through their properties and a commission was appointed which decided to install a system of sluices to regulate the access to water. The waters from this spring affected the first Environmental Law of South Africa — Placcaat 12 of 1655:

“Niet boven de stroom van de spruitjie daer de schepen haer water halen te wassen en deselve troubel te maken”.
“No washing and making trouble with the water above the headstream.”

The spring collection chamber, also called the New Main Spring (April 2014). Source: COCT Springs Report, 2015

According to the City’s 2018 Water Strategy document:

“Efforts will also continue to ensure the optimal use of spring-water resources. The City has surveyed springs within its jurisdiction and evaluated more than 60 springs for potential use. Where feasible, the City will facilitate the use of spring water to augment drinking water supply, for irrigation and non-drinking purposes, and for distribution to the public at spring water collection points.”

The suburb of Oranjezicht now covers an area known as the Field of Springs, which feeds the Camissa basin, from which water was drawn to supply passing ships and the first permanent settlement via canals or “grachts.” With the coming of the Dutch, the Field of Springs was designated a farm belonging to the Van Breda family, who were given full water rights, and with that the springs became private property — the water commons became something that they “owned.”

Water inflow into the New Main Spring collection chamber (March 2014). Source: COCT Springs Report, 2015

This spring supplied Cape Town’s first water pipe before 1769; during the 1800s a structure around the Stadsfontein was built for the collection of all 12 springs on the Van Breda farm; after which the water was piped to a reservoir. After the Molteno and other lower service reservoirs were built, water was supplied by a number of springs on the side of Table Mountain: Platteklip, Stadtsfontein, Lammetjies, Vineyard, Waterhof and Kotze on the Leeuwenhof Estate. Legislation was then passed giving the municipality control over the water on the Oranjezicht farm, after which it was divided up and sold off to become what is the modern day suburb.

In recent times, this plentiful supply of water has mainly been used for irrigation, but interest was reignited before the 2010 World Cup, when it became part of a plan to irrigate Green Point Common and flush the toilets at the new stadium. It is estimated that these springs have sufficient capacity to supply the free basic water supply at around 20 000 homes without impact on current water resources. So during the water crisis in 2017, chlorinators were installed at the Molteno reservoir, and once again, water from the Field of Springs fed households in the city.

Molteno Reservoir, Oranjezicht

Table Mountain is unique in that it is a mountain catchment feeding a huge aquifer that extends all the way to the Boland mountains beneath the Steenbras Dam. It is the only strategic water source area entirely covered by urban settlement. In addition to rainfall, its famous table-cloth of cloud condenses onto fynbos vegetation, providing a constant source of water feeding more than 30 springs. The topographical features of the Table Mountain are such that springs naturally occur in such abundance they were able to supply all of Cape Town’s water needs until the 1880s.

Some of the Table Mountain Springs. Map Source: Changhong Wu, UWC

According to archival records there are thirty-six artesian springs around Table Mountain. Thirty-two have been located, of which only 13 are listed by the municipality. Studies and monitoring of these has been patchy and in some instances controversial due to competing interests. Prior to the World Cup in 2010, Table Mountain’s springs were largely forgotten, and in 1994 had been struck off the City’s asset register. The Albion Spring was until recently the only one connected to the bulk water supply system.

Field of Springs, Oranjezicht. Source: COCT Springs Strategy, 2015

Some springs are available for the public to collect from, a few feed into the municipal system, some are used for irrigation, and since the 1690s, used in the production of beer. However, a significant amount of spring water flows wasted into the stormwater system. As the city faced the possibility of Day Zero, with increases in water prices and water restrictions, this resource again rose to the attention of city water management and the public.

Hydrologist Caron von Zeil is the founder of Reclaim Camissa and has spent years researching Table Mountain’s springs and telling powerful stories of their significance. Focusing on the Camissa River basin, her vision is that

“…one day, the people of Cape Town will gather around our common heritage of CAMISSA — the very waters that defined the location of the city, reflecting the public past and embracing a new civic infrastructure, inspired by a deliberate recognition and respect for the social, cultural and ecological significance of this Water. Linking the past with the present, to develop a different model for our future, by connecting people to this vital resource, we celebrate the Water that links mountain to sea, past to future, and people to the Environment.” Reclaim Camissa Trust, 2010

The suburb of Oranjezicht now covers an area known as the Field of Springs, which feeds the Camissa basin, from which water was drawn to supply passing ships and the first permanent settlement via canals or “grachts.” With the coming of the Dutch, the Field of Springs was designated a farm belonging to the Van Breda family, who were given full water rights, and with that the springs became private property — the water commons became something that they “owned.”

Position of Stadsfontein Spring, Cape Town, 1786. Source: COCT Springs Strategy, 2015

Quantitatively, the largest of the City Bowl’s springs, is the Stadtsfontein — with 2.5 to 3.5 million litres of water flowing, daily. Neighbours of the original Oranjezicht farm complained about access to water that ran through their properties and a commission was appointed which decided to install a system of sluices to regulate the access to water. The waters from this spring affected the first Environmental Law of South Africa — Placcaat 12 of 1655:

“Niet boven de stroom van de spruitjie daer de schepen haer water halen te wassen en deselve troubel te maken”.
“No washing and making trouble with the water above the headstream.”

The spring collection chamber, also called the New Main Spring (April 2014). Source: COCT Springs Report, 2015

Water inflow into the New Main Spring collection chamber (March 2014). Source: COCT Springs Report, 2015

This spring supplied Cape Town’s first water pipe before 1769; during the 1800s a structure around the Stadsfontein was built for the collection of all 12 springs on the Van Breda farm; after which the water was piped to a reservoir. After the Molteno and other lower service reservoirs were built, water was supplied by a number of springs on the side of Table Mountain: Platteklip, Stadtsfontein, Lammetjies, Vineyard, Waterhof and Kotze on the Leeuwenhof Estate. Legislation was then passed giving the municipality control over the water on the Oranjezicht farm, after which it was divided up and sold off to become what is the modern day suburb.

In recent times, this plentiful supply of water has mainly been used for irrigation, but interest was reignited before the 2010 World Cup, when it became part of a plan to irrigate Green Point Common and flush the toilets at the new stadium. It is estimated that these springs have sufficient capacity to supply the free basic water supply at around 20 000 homes without impact on current water resources. So during the water crisis in 2017, chlorinators were installed at the Molteno reservoir, and once again, water from the Field of Springs fed households in the city.

Molteno Reservoir, Oranjezicht

According to the City’s 2018 Water Strategy document:

“Efforts will also continue to ensure the optimal use of spring-water resources. The City has surveyed springs within its jurisdiction and evaluated more than 60 springs for potential use. Where feasible, the City will facilitate the use of spring water to augment drinking water supply, for irrigation and non-drinking purposes, and for distribution to the public at spring water collection points.”

Public and Private Use of Springs

“You who are allowed to still flow freely and where we have the privilege to drink straight from this Earth, thank you for the ways that your waters remind us how to be human members of this breathing world.” Jess Tyrrell, Collecting spring water reminds us how to be human

Newlands Spring is one of the best known of Table Mountain’s springs. For many years residents were able to collect spring water from Springs Way, and a few hundred chose to do so for health and economic reasons. As the possibility of Day Zero became more stark, rising water costs and a 50 litre per person per day water restriction brought 7000 people per day at its peak to the spring to collect water. Long queues and the additional traffic sparked numerous complaints from local residents, and the City of Cape Town moved the collection site a kilometre away where water could be collected via 16 industrial taps. Although this seems like the most practical solution, many Capetonians experienced this as a deep loss, which was examined by Jess Tyrrell in her Environmental Humanities Masters thesis.

Collecting water from Newlands Spring. Source: Caron von Zeil

Source: Jess Tyrrell

“Water is a powerful medium of connection. Yet, the city’s water policies are shaped by the kind of thinking that sees water only as a commodity, reflected in an urban design that further alienates people from water and nature. In this era of the Anthropocene, itself a condition of this alienation of people from the earth, the paper concludes and proposes biophilic design principles that foster the sensibilities of connection and interdependence as a vital part of urban design for a shared future where people come to know what it means to be human as participants within a living world.” Jess Tyrrell

Newlands and Kommetjie Springs are the source of the water used in making beer since 1694. These springs also historically supplied water to drive a number of watermills along the Liesbeek River and her tributaries. South African Breweries (SAB) still makes use of spring water rising on their land, which during the 2017/8 water crisis drew some questions around “ownership” of water and management of our water Commons. ABinBev which owns SAB has funded the WWF Groundwater pilot study, and the Table Mountain Water Source Area Partnership, as part of a collective stewardship partnership. But how much water should businesses be permitted to draw at no cost to create products for profit?

Source: Historic Archives of Foresters Arms

According to the 2015 Springs Strategy, Newlands Spring is also used for nearby private property gardening and is available for collection by Cape Town residents behind the Newlands Swimming Pool. Kommetjie Spring is used by SAB and local schools for cleaning and irrigation. Albion Spring feeds the municipal supply system. Discharges into the Liesbeek River are needed to maintain ecological balance — so these amounts therefore need to be monitored.

Table Mountain Group Aquifer

The Table Mountain springs and associated river basins feed the Table Mountain Group Aquifer, which is a hard rock aquifer that can be accessed on the peninsula and in the Boland Mountains to the north-east of the city. It is believed to be among the largest in the world and stretches from Nieuwoudtville in the Great Karoo to Cape Agulhas in the south and Port Elizabeth in the east. Tapping into this huge store of water became part of the City’s water supply plan in 2017 during the water crisis, and according to the COCT Water Outlook, wellfields being targeted are in the vicinity of Steenbras dam, Nuweberg and Groenlandberg, near Theewaterskloof dam. They state that the Department of Water and Sanitation has imposed licence conditions on groundwater abstraction from the Table Mountain Group aquifer to ensure the sustainability of the resource and environmental monitoring committees will be set up to oversee longer-term sustainability.

However, when drilling began in February 2018 questions were raised by scientists and environmentalists as the majority of the over 200 identified drilling sites are located within or near officially protected areas. This fact was waived by the Department of Water and Sanitation in issuing emergency water permits to the City of Cape Town and the Stellenbosch and Drakenstein municipalities due to the water crisis.

Another local ecologist from UCT, Jasper Slingsby, voiced concerns in Ground Up, questioning the wisdom of this additional water being extracted in the area that feeds the city’s water supply dams. Over-extraction has led to depletion of aquifers in places like Australia and the United States. At the same time, UK conservationist Robbie Blackhall Miles tweeted about a borehole near critically endangerd Protea species, Diastelli buekii, which Slingsby retweeted with a comment that Erica bakeri is affected too. The subsequent outcry led the City of Cape town to reduce the number of drilling sites, and establish an outside environmental monitoring committee which includes some of the UCT scientists who issued an open “Statement of Concern”.

In August 2020, press headlines announced “Cape Town taps into world’s biggest aquifer” as the City of Cape Town launched the underground water extraction project in the Table Mountain Group aquifer, having completed eight production boreholes at a depth of 710 metres which yield almost 20 million litres per day. According to the City, once a further four are completed, the total yield will be 30 million litres per day, which is equivalent to a daily water supply for about 200 000 people using 125 litres per person per day. No mention was made of the ecological impact.

City of Cape Town councillors, officials and the media visit one of the drilling sites in the Steenbras Nature Reserve. Source: Ground Up Photo:John Yeld

Water and biodiversity experts like Mark Botha worry about the strategy of locating some water boreholes within existing rivers and streams, so that extracted water can pour out directly into riverbeds and down to dams below. The potentially huge increases in flow volumes will almost certainly alter the ecological character of these water channels in ways that can’t be predicted. In addition, many of the sites are located in ecologically sensitive areas.

The City of Cape Water Outlook document details a plan to extract a combined 120 megalitres of new water a day from the Table Mountain and Cape Flats Aquifers over the next few years. They claim that this is based on years of research around the risks to the environment and citizens, yet many experts in water and ecology remain unconvinced.

The Table Mountain springs and associated river basins feed the Table Mountain Group Aquifer, which is a hard rock aquifer that can be accessed on the peninsula and in the Boland Mountains to the north-east of the city. It is believed to be among the largest in the world and stretches from Nieuwoudtville in the Great Karoo to Cape Agulhas in the south and Port Elizabeth in the east. Tapping into this huge store of water became part of the City’s water supply plan in 2017 during the water crisis, and according to the COCT Water Outlook, wellfields being targeted are in the vicinity of Steenbras dam, Nuweberg and Groenlandberg, near Theewaterskloof dam. They state that the Department of Water and Sanitation has imposed licence conditions on groundwater abstraction from the Table Mountain Group aquifer to ensure the sustainability of the resource and environmental monitoring committees will be set up to oversee longer-term sustainability.

However, when drilling began in February 2018 questions were raised by scientists and environmentalists as the majority of the over 200 identified drilling sites are located within or near officially protected areas. This fact was waived by the Department of Water and Sanitation in issuing emergency water permits to the City of Cape Town and the Stellenbosch and Drakenstein municipalities due to the water crisis.

City of Cape Town councillors, officials and the media visit one of the drilling sites in the Steenbras Nature Reserve. Source: Ground Up Photo:John Yeld

Water and biodiversity experts like Mark Botha worry about the strategy of locating some water boreholes within existing rivers and streams, so that extracted water can pour out directly into riverbeds and down to dams below. The potentially huge increases in flow volumes will almost certainly alter the ecological character of these water channels in ways that can’t be predicted. In addition, many of the sites are located in ecologically sensitive areas.

Another local ecologist from UCT, Jasper Slingsby, voiced concerns in Ground Up, questioning the wisdom of this additional water being extracted in the area that feeds the city’s water supply dams. Over-extraction has led to depletion of aquifers in places like Australia and the United States. At the same time, UK conservationist Robbie Blackhall Miles tweeted about a borehole near critically endangerd Protea species, Diastelli buekii, which Slingsby retweeted with a comment that Erica bakeri is affected too. The subsequent outcry lled the City of Cape town to reduce the number of drilling sites, and establish an outside environmental monitoring committee which includes some of the UCT scientists who issued an open “Statement of Concern”.

In August 2020, press headlines announced “Cape Town taps into world’s biggest aquifer” as the City of Cape Town launched the underground water extraction project in the Table Mountain Group aquifer, having completed eight production boreholes at a depth of 710 metres which yield almost 20 million litres per day. According to the City, once a further four are completed, the total yield will be 30 million litres per day, which is equivalent to a daily water supply for about 200 000 people using 125 litres per person per day. No mention was made of the ecological impact.

The City of Cape Water Outlook document details a plan to extract a combined 120 megalitres of new water a day from the Table Mountain and Cape Flats Aquifers over the next few years. They claim that this is based on years of research around the risks to the environment and citizens, yet many experts in water and ecology remain unconvinced.

Managed Aquifer Recharge

The City of Cape Town currently recycles about 7% of all water that has been treated at wastewater works to reduce the amount of drinking water used for non-potable purposes like irrigation, industrial use and toilet flushing. According to their current water strategy, this will be increased to 30% and there are plans to use treated wastewater in managed aquifer recharge (MAR) in the Cape Flats as has been the case with the Atlantis Aquifers.

The Atlantis-Silwerstroom Aquifer is north of Cape Town up the West Coast and has already been supplying some water to Atlantis for 30 years via two groups of boreholes, one in Witsand and one in Silwerstroom Strand. The long term plan is for groundwater to supply all of the area’s water by developing more wellfields in Silwerstroom Strand, upgrading existing infrastructure and adding a water treatment facility. Treated wastewater has been used to artificially recharge the aquifer to prevent encroaching salination and depletion.

Conceptual image of how artificial recharge and abstraction could be used in an urban area. This would enhance the water quality and contribute to the bulk supply of the City of Cape Town. Source: Hay et al, Cape Flats Aquifer and False Bay, Opportunities to change

The Fisantekraal wastewater treatment plant has the most advanced water treatment technology, using ultraviolet disinfection, and is a ‘zero discharge’ plant. The City states that there are 12 other WWTWs that are equipped to produce treated effluent suitable for reuse. These include Potsdam, Bellville, Cape Flats, Athlone, Macassar, Kraaifontein, Scottsdene, Wesfleur, Mitchell’s Plain, Melkbosstrand, Gordon’s Bay, and Parow.

However, pollution issues downstream of many of these plants indicate that they are overloaded and unable to produce treated water of adequate quality. In addition, no wastewater treatment plants in Cape Town remove many chemicals of emerging concern, which are polluting the environment in increasing amounts. This has far reaching consequences for land and groundwater contamination which has many experts worried.

Map illustrating the CFA study area and the major inflows arising from urbanisation. The CFA is naturally receiving rainfall and runoff from the surrounding mountains but is now receiving additional water from stormwater and WWTW’s. This has resulted in winter flooding due to a shortage of space in the aquifer and contaminated water entering the aquifer and False Bay. Source: Hay et al, Cape Flats Aquifer and False Bay, Opportunities to change

Ongoing studies in Atlantis have linked the persistence of chemicals of emerging concern (CECs), with wastewater and stormwater reuse, managed aquifer recharge, and drinking water quality. The treated wastewater recharging the aquifer is ultimately being used to supply the town of Atlantis who are unaware of the potential presence of CECs in their water system. It can thus be considered of utmost importance to generate background data for other proposed artificial recharge sites, particularly where recharge will come from recycled urban wastewater such as envisaged in the Cape Flats Aquifer.

The Cape Flats Aquifer

The Cape Flats Aquifer stretches from False Bay to the Tygerberg hills and to Milnerton, and is a shallow aquifer that sits in the coastal sand between the Cape Peninsula and the mainland. This area is a mix of urban settlement, industry and agriculture with intense water use and multi-stakeholder interest in water.

Map of the aquifer thickness, (blue representing thickest and white, thinnest) with the groundwater flow paths in red, representing the highest potential of groundwater. Source: Hay et al, Cape Flats Aquifer and False Bay, Opportunities to change

In the Philippi Horticultural Area, sitting above the Cape Flats Aquifer, the water table is in places around a metre from the surface, making this source of more than half Cape Town’s fresh produce drought proof. A report commissioned by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture in 2018 describes the PHA farmlands as an integral part of food security with irreplaceable growing conditions, within the city limits.

Photo: Maryatta Wegerif

Source: PHA Campaign

According to City documents, the Cape Flats water source area will contribute an additional 6% to Cape Town’s bulk water supply in the next few years and to develop in two phases in the clusters of Strandfontein West, Strandfontein North and East, Philippi, Hanover Park, Bishop Lavis and Swartklip. The scheme also includes artificial recharge of the aquifer by injecting treated wastewater, as well as a seawater intrusion barrier. Any water extracted from the boreholes will be piped directly to the closest water treatment plant.

However, many experts have raised concerns about the level of contamination in the Cape Flats linked to industry, agriculture and residential pollution, and that wastewater treatment does not remove most chemicals and pharmaceuticals from sewage and greywater. Therefore the water will need to be highly treated to make it potable or to not endanger the aquifer through recharge.

Phillippi Horticultural Area. Source: Socio-Economic Agricultural Plan for the Existing PHA

Development in this area endangers the aquifer recharge zone, thousands of jobs and the city’s food supply, and has been contested for a decade by the Philippi Horticultural Association, backed by 33 civil society organisations. A landmark high court ruling in February 2020 by judge Kate Savage sent back a decision to refuse an appeal against the rezoning and subdivision of the Oakland City development to the City of Cape Town’s General Appeals Committee to consider the issues and specifically the impact that development will have on the Cape Flats Aquifer in the context of climate change and water scarcity.

Local farmer Nazeer Sonday has long offered a bold vision for the PHA as a smallholder agroecological hub that could provide the city’s fresh produce, employ thousands more, protect ecological diversity and address land inaccess for black farmers. This campaign, which has fought tirelessly to protect the water and fresh food supply of the city from unrestrained development, offers a glimpse of what is possible when all voices, including that of non-human biodiversity, are included. What kind of Wetland City could Cape Town be if this thinking were expanded?

The Cape Flats Aquifer stretches from False Bay to the Tygerberg hills and to Milnerton, and is a shallow aquifer that sits in the coastal sand between the Cape Peninsula and the mainland. This area is a mix of urban settlement, industry and agriculture with intense water use and multi-stakeholder interest in water.

Map of the aquifer thickness, (blue representing thickest and white, thinnest) with the groundwater flow paths in red, representing the highest potential of groundwater. Source: Hay et al, Cape Flats Aquifer and False Bay, Opportunities to change

According to City documents, the Cape Flats water source area will contribute an additional 6% to Cape Town’s bulk water supply in the next few years and to develop in two phases in the clusters of Strandfontein West, Strandfontein North and East, Philippi, Hanover Park, Bishop Lavis and Swartklip. The scheme also includes artificial recharge of the aquifer by injecting treated wastewater, as well as a seawater intrusion barrier. Any water extracted from the boreholes will be piped directly to the closest water treatment plant.

However, many experts have raised concerns about the level of contamination in the Cape Flats linked to industry, agriculture and residential pollution, and that wastewater treatment does not remove most chemicals and pharmaceuticals from sewage and greywater. Therefore the water will need to be highly treated to make it potable or to not endanger the aquifer through recharge.

Phillippi Horticultural Area. Source: Socio-Economic Agricultural Plan for the Existing PHA

In the Philippi Horticultural Area, sitting above the Cape Flats Aquifer, the water table is in places around a metre from the surface, making this source of more than half Cape Town’s fresh produce drought proof. A report commissioned by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture in 2018 describes the PHA farmlands as an integral part of food security with irreplaceable growing conditions, within the city limits.

Development in this area endangers the aquifer recharge zone, thousands of jobs and the city’s food supply, and has been contested for a decade by the Philippi Horticultural Association, backed by 33 civil society organisations. A landmark high court ruling in February 2020 by judge Kate Savage sent back a decision to refuse an appeal against the rezoning and subdivision of the Oakland City development to the City of Cape Town’s General Appeals Committee to consider the issues and specifically the impact that development will have on the Cape Flats Aquifer in the context of climate change and water scarcity.

Photo: Maryatta Wegerif

Local farmer Nazeer Sonday has long offered a bold vision for the PHA as a smallholder agroecological hub that could provide the city’s fresh produce, employ thousands more, protect ecological diversity and address land inaccess for black farmers. This campaign, which has fought tirelessly to protect the water and fresh food supply of the city from unrestrained development, offers a glimpse of what is possible when all voices, including that of non-human biodiversity, are included. What kind of Wetland City could Cape Town be if this thinking were expanded?

Source: PHA Campaign