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.”