Cape Town Drought

After some eighteen months of commuting between Europe and South Africa with 90-day tourist visas, I arrived in Cape Town in mid-January of this year with a 4-year residency permit.  It had involved several months of meeting many bureaucratic requirements (Applying for South African Residency), but finally I could stay, at least for four years, with the possibility of extending.

But no sooner had I landed, when my driver made me aware of the seriousness of the Cape drought situation.  At the end of the seasonal rains in 2014, the dams were almost full, but three years of below normal rainfall had left them in a precarious situation; the dam levels were at just over 20% capacity.  Little capacity remained, as the last 10% cannot easily be accessed.

Shortly after, the local government reduced the legal consumption from 87 litres per person per day to 50 litres.  Now I had no idea of what normal water consumption per day would be, but I was told that in Sweden 200 litres per day was normal and in the US 300.  So how to get down to 50 L per day?

Copious advice was available.  Obviously filling swimming pools, watering gardens and washing cars were out of the question.  We were advised that a 30 second shower used about 18 litres, a full flush of a toilet, 9 litres, and a quick flush, 5 litres.  And a washing machine and a dish washer about 25-35 litres each, depending on the make and model.  So, 50 litres per day per person was not a lot of water, at least not by western standards.

In the bars and restaurants, clients were urged not to flush toilets, unless absolutely necessary – ‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if brown, flush it down’.  And in the Radisson Hotel, near the Waterfront, there was and still is, an exhibit to educate guests on the water situation and the impact of having a bath or a 90-second shower.

Dam Levels 2007-2017

Water usuage

But how did Cape Town get in this precarious situation, that attracted the international press naming of Cape Town as the first major city at risk of running out of water?

Obviously, the failure of the annual winter rainfall was a major contributor to the crisis.  But I suspect that there has been no recent increase in the capacity to store water in the ‘wet’ years.  The existing dam walls need to be radically raised where feasible, to avoid the overflows in the wet years spilling to the sea.

Of course, the population of Cape Town is not static; according to Premier Helen Zille, between the census of 1996 and that of 2011, the population increased by 45% to 3.8 million.  I often wonder how they count the hordes of homeless and vagrants that one encounters in the relatively prosperous area in which we live, never mind in the ‘no-go’ townships, which sane people avoid.

And what about the tourist trade?  In recent years, Cape Town has been the ‘in place´ to visit and be seen.  But tourists are predictably not enthused about restricted showering and toilet flushing and choose to spend their money elsewhere.  After the ‘negative news’ hit the international press, the hotels, restaurants and bars of the city reflected the paucity of business.  It has not been a great year for the tourism industry.

In February the government announced that ‘Day Zero’ would be in March, the day when the water supply would be switched off and that citizens would have to collect their reduced daily allowance of 20 liters per person day.  This would be distributed at some 200 stand-pipes located near supermarkets and other gathering spots and the distribution would be supervised by the military.  There was no information as to how the ration of water would be accounted for.

Predictably there was immediately a run on bottled water.  The supermarket shelves were stripped dry and there was not a drop to be seen anywhere.  When a new shipment arrived in the morning, it soon evaporated.  The supermarkets limited the purchase per client, but the shelves remained empty.

Then ‘Day Zero’ was suddenly postponed and then postponed again.  There was still no rain, but the conservation efforts of the population and eliminating water to the farms, resulted in a 60% reduction of water consumption.  At least that was the official reason for the postponements.

And in early May it started to rain, not heavily, but persistently, and the dams started to fill.  Day by day the levels grew, from 20.9% on 7 May, through 30% on 5 June, 40% on 20 June, and 50% on 3 July.  As of today, the level is at 56.5%.

Is the drought over?  Probably it is for the next twelve months, but one must remember that the farms are still not receiving any water and they are suffering.  Until the stored water level gets to 70% of capacity, the emergency should not be declared as over for this year.Capture

10-year

To contribute to available water supplies in the future, the local government has set the objective of obtaining at least 10% from alternative supplies:

  • Desalination plants are being constructed
  • Wells are being drilled
  • A blitz on leaking pipes
  • Treating of effluent water

I recall my old friend in Toronto, Peter Pedrette, relating of when he was a junior quantity surveyor in London, he was being shown around a water treatment plan, and in a break was offered a glass of water from a tap.  After he drank it, he was told that the water had been through at least six people.

For cities, such as Cape Town, in the future reliance on natural rainfall may not be sufficient to satisfy local requirements.  Water, no matter the source, will have to be viewed as a valuable resource, to be cleansed, treated and returned to general consumption.

No longer can we take for granted that water will flow when we turn on the tap.

Peter Pedrette

Toronto, 1965

I had been in Canada for some ten days, I had very little money, I was only 18, but I did have a job starting the following Monday.  But where could I stay? (see https://lenblackwood.com/2017/05/28/80)

It was the result of a phone call to my dear friends, George and Eileen Darragh, that my dilemma was solved, at least temporarily.  They had just recently moved into a small one-bedroom apartment at the corner of Keele and Lawrence, had few financial resources themselves, and welcomed the pittance that I could offer, in return for my sleeping in the corner of their living room and an occasional evening meal.  And as it turned out, George worked only two blocks away from my new employer, so we travelled in each morning by bus to Yonge Street, and then by metro into the city, a journey of about an hour.  (see lenblackwood.com/2017/05/13/78).

The office of Helyar, Vermeulen, Rae & Maughan (HVR&M) was on the seventh floor of an old building at the corner of Bay & Richmond.  One could tell that the building was ancient by the elevator, with its sliding mesh doors and which could only be operated by an attendant, day or night.  Across Bay Street was the huge multi-storey Simpson’s department store with its multiple storeys, plus a basement and occupying an entire city block.

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The corner of Simpson’s where I first met Sandy

When I joined HVR&M, there were only three employees – an Australian receptionist (Janice), an English bookkeeper (I can’t remember her name), and an English quantity surveyor, Peter Pedrette.  Soon after, we were joined by another Englishman –  Jack Brown, and a rather shy little Jamaican – Leroy, who rarely ever spoke.

Quantity-Surveyor
The typical desktop of a quantity surveyor

Peter was 36 when I first knew him and he had only recently arrived in Canada, with his wife, Barbara.  He had spent some years working in Kuwait and it was there that he met Barbara, a school teacher.  They were both devout Catholics and not long married.  Their first child was due later that year.  They were devoted to each other and they always addressed each other as ‘Darling’.  They were well-educated a well-spoken.  Apart from my father and his parents, Peter and Barbara were the first English people that I had ever met.  I developed a great respect for them.

It was Peter who fuelled my nascent interest in equity investment by talking of shares he was considering buying.  One lunch hour we went to the Toronto Stock Exchange and I was fascinated to see how the trading worked in the cacophony of noise, with traders shouting their offers and communicating with their team by hand signals.  And the tickertape of deals, moving relentlessly across the screens.  I was well and truly hooked and I spent many evenings in the city library, around the corner from the office, reading investment books, and forming my own approach to equities.  It has turned out to be a lifetime interest, and my methods today are little changed from my initial approach more than 50 years ago.

I suspect that Peter was quite well off, at least by my standards. One day he asked me if I would help him to carry some gold from the bank where he was going to buy it, to his deposit box in another bank further up the street.  I carried one of the bars for him, while he carried the other.  They were small but extremely heavy.  It was my first exposure to gold and those two bars would today be worth more than a million dollars.

Across the street from the office and a floor higher in Simpson’s, we could see girls in white uniforms working at the windows.  We used to wave to them.  Jack’s fiancée was a buyer in Simpson’s and one day he reported back that the windows were part of the Elizabeth Arden beauty salon.  One afternoon, Jack suggested that we take a large sheet of architects drawing paper and write ‘Telephone number?’  on it, and hold it up at our window, when the girls were looking out.  This we did, and a blonde girl signalled back their number.  But what to do next?  Peter was married, Jack was engaged and Leroy was too shy, so it was left to me to make the call.  Well one thing led to another and before long the girl – Sandy, and I became constant companions, a situation that lasted for the next eight years and through many countries.  And her friend Valerie, who was also at the windows, ended up married to my friend Howard, and thanks to internet, I am still in periodic contact with both of them.

Peter and Barbara lived in a small cottage on Algonquin Island, one of a chain of islands just south of the Toronto mainland.  There were no cars on the island and Peter commuted to work by ferry.  It was an idyllic setting.  Sandy and I visited them many times, sometimes for a meal, once to babysit their little son – Anthony, and another time to help with raking up the knee-deep layer of autumn leaves.  Eventually they bought a large old house with wood panelling, near High Park.  I helped them with the move.

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Toronto Islands, with Algonquin Island on the far left
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And could well have been their little cottage

Inevitably time moves on, we eventually left Toronto on our long journey across Canada to Vancouver and San Francisco and island hopping to Australia.  And I lost touch with Peter.  Apart from a brief business visit in 2001, I have never been back to Toronto.

A few years ago, I tried to trace Peter and Barbara through internet sites, but to no avail; I could not find their footprints.  It was only recently that I stumbled on them.  It turned out that Barbara died of cancer in 2004, Peter in 2005 and his oldest son five months later.

And Peter died the same month as I had my own near-death experience in Stockholm, the day before George died in Coleraine.

Of the three of us, I was the lucky survivor.

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