Treading Water

An Array Of Projects Is Underway To Keep Cape Town, South Africa From Drying Up


Cape Town, South Africa is parched. As its water reserves fell to perilously low levels in the midst of a devastating drought, the city of Cape Town in February lowered daily consumption limits and raised the ominous prospect of “Day Zero”—when the city would shut off its taps. But the government did more than just ring the alarm bell: It also has launched several alternative water source and augmentation projects that include constructing emergency desalination plants, building a water-recycling facility, expanding aquifers and fast-tracking a dam project.

“Given the severity of the drought and the uncertainty around rainfall, we needed to be flexible in our approach,” Cape Town city council member Xanthea Limberg told South Africa's News24. She is the chairperson of the council's water resilience advisory committee.

—Xanthea Limberg, Cape Town City Council, Cape Town, South Africa, to News24

Part of being flexible involves sponsoring projects to construct temporary desalination plants that can quickly deliver benefits. The ZAR240 million seawater desalination plant at Strandfontein Pavilion is an example. The four-month project will deliver drinking water for just two years, at which point the equipment will be removed.

“Temporary projects usually have a much faster implementation schedule, resulting in alternative planning and initiation processes,” says Wynand Wessels, project manager, Proxa, Cape Town, South Africa. The organization is part of a joint venture with Water Solutions to deliver the project and will operate the Strandfontein plant once it's complete. “Subcontracting started in advance of a clearly defined scope of work to fix contract principles and reduce time frames. And an executive project steering committee was established to fast-track risk decisions on a daily basis.”

—Wynand Wessels, Proxa, Cape Town, South Africa


People collect free water at SAB breweries in Newlands, South Africa, a suburb of Cape Town.


Fast implementation is a definite perk as Day Zero looms—although it was pushed back to 2019 following the success of stringent conservation policies and substantial rainfall predictions for this year. But many hospitals and affluent residents are still moving forward with their own small-scale initiatives to move off Cape Town's water system.

Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital already enjoys the benefits of having its own water supply. It completed a ZAR2 million project in March that involved drilling a well hole and building a three-phase water filtration system and potable water tanks. The project will save the hospital about ZAR90,000 in monthly water costs and allow patient care to continue uninterrupted if Day Zero ever arrives.

“There's been a definite uptick in private interest in water projects,” says Harry Singleton, Johannesburg, South Africa. He's an operations executive at Murray & Roberts Water, which worked on the Pallotti project.

Tapping New Approaches

With so many water supply projects in motion in the city, it can be a challenge to find needed project materials on tight timelines while staying within budgets, Mr. Singleton says. Murray & Roberts has mitigated the risk of price spikes by making longer-term forecasts of its need for long-lead items and stocking more of those materials in-house. “We're also sourcing supplies from international markets at competitive pricing,” he says. “But lead times are longer.” Balancing budgets while also staying on schedule can be tricky.

At Proxa, project teams have tapped the organization's global network for procurement help. “For example, we procured reverse osmosis equipment from Proxa Middle East,” Mr. Wessels says. “We can bypass some South Africa-based agents and deal directly with equipment manufacturers, which offsets some of the cost implications of expedited delivery.” —Kate Rockwood

Life After Day Zero

Cape Town, South Africa's dreaded “Day Zero” is not set in stone. Officials recalculate the date—which is when taps will dry up and residents will have to queue for trucked-in water—each week. The projection is based on factors like current reservoir capacity and daily consumption. The scenario is no longer expected in 2018, but a project plan is ready for implementation should disaster strike.

The goal is simple: “[H]ow do we make water accessible and prevent anarchy?” Helen Zille, former Cape Town mayor and current premier of South Africa's Western Cape province (which contains Cape Town), wrote in South Africa's Daily Maverick online newspaper earlier this year. Here are key elements of the government's post-Day Zero project plan, according to Ms. Zille.

img When the dams supplying the region's water supply hit 13.5 percent capacity, Cape Town's water supply will be turned off for everything but essential services, such as hospitals.

img City officials will designate roughly 200 sites where residents will queue to collect a daily maximum of 6.6 gallons (25 liters) of water.

img Armed guards pulled from the police and army will patrol water collection areas to prevent poachers. (The city has not made clear how it would manage the influx of traffic and parking to accommodate people transporting their daily water haul.)

img The government would create systems to track and tally daily distributions—which would involve registering families larger than four people to allow for greater equity in water rations.


Nicholas Sloane


Iceberg to the Rescue

Could a melted iceberg slake Cape Town, South Africa's thirst? It's possible, says Nicholas Sloane, a city resident who led the salvage operation of the capsized Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia in 2013. In April, he proposed a project to tow an iceberg broken off from Antarctica to the coast of Cape Town. A single iceberg weighing about 70,000 tons could provide nearly 150 million liters (39.6 million gallons) of water per day for an entire year.

The scope of the project, which Mr. Sloane estimates would cost US$130 million, would include wrapping the iceberg in fabric to limit melting during its three-month journey. Because the iceberg would run aground miles from the city's coast due to its large draft, the project team would need to tie it in place offshore to prevent drifting. Then a milling machine would cut into the ice to produce a slurry that would speed up the natural melting process and allow faster freshwater harvesting.

“We want to show that if there is no other source to solve the water crisis, we have another idea no one else has thought of yet.”



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