(This article was first published on 27 January 2018 in the Weekend Argus, a weekly regional newspaper distributed in the Western Cape, South Africa.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Cape Town’s water economy is booming, with online searches for this precious commodity skyrocketing by 557% in the last month, according to statistics from PriceCheck website.

PriceCheck is a local website which aggregates available products listed online to source the best product price and location for consumers.

Water and water-related products such as storage tanks, sanitizers, plastic buckets and water pumps – which make up this fragile economy – are being sought en masse.

Kevin Tucker, chief executive at PriceCheck, said statistics from their website shows a massive jump in searches for all things water-related.

“A number of retailers are promoting things like bottled water specials. We’ve seen the search for bottled water increase by 577% in the last month, which indicated a bit of panic buying,” said Tucker.

“The price increases we’ve seen aren’t necessarily shops, but rather individual products or categories of specialised products… where products are scarce and specialised the prices will and have gone up. Service providers have increased their prices.”

Tucker added with hope: “The principles of supply and demand still apply, and we know that the supply has increased substantially, therefore its likely that increased prices will become the norm for as long as the crisis and demand exists.”

Cape Town residents are stockpiling bottled water in preparation for the day taps run dry. Picture: Yazeed Kamaldien

Businesses are meanwhile prominently heeding calls to join forces with government and civil society to save water as Cape Town races towards Day Zero when water restrictions are meant to take effect.

Organisers of Cape Town’s annual horseracing gathering, now called Sun Met, confirmed this week they would not be tapping into the city’s fast-depleting water reserves.

Rob Collins, chief operations officer of Sun International which runs the event at Kenilworth Racecourse, said they are carting in 60,000 litres of water to “service guests and racegoers”.

“Furthermore, a plan will be made and put into action to ensure that any surplus water following the Sun Met event is put to use to help alleviate the Cape Town water crisis,” said Collins.

The Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC), a landmark conference and events venue in the city centre, launched its new R900-million expansion this week.

Both city mayor Patricia de Lille and provincial premier Helen Zille, who are facing a backlash for not acting sooner to avert the current water crisis, were at the opening ceremony on Thursday night.

CTICC chief executive Julie-May Ellingson says since their first building opened in 2003 there have been nearly 7,000 events at the centre.

Ellingson could not avoid obvious questions about the CTICC’s impact on Cape Town’s drought crisis. She told the gathering they have already “implemented several water savings measures to reduce the centre’s water consumption”.

“Most of our water savings initiatives take place behind the scenes and is part of our facilities management operations,” she said.

“The CTICC has been running water conservation initiatives for several years. By the 2015/16 financial year, the centre had already been using 10 million litres less water than it did five years earlier.

“As the drought intensified the centre also installed storage tanks to capture rain water and increased the grey water storage capacity. Additional augmentation systems are under consideration but the focus remains on minimising water usage wherever possible.”

Water storage tanks sell out as soon as they arrive at shops like Stodels Garden Centre. Picture: Yazeed Kamaldien

Not all businesses have gained with favour with locals as this week Newlands-based South African Breweries (SAB) faced community outrage.

The recently formed Cape Town Water Crisis Coalition criticised SAB this week for not really helping the water crisis after it offered to bottle a million cases of water bottles, totally 9 million litres, if the Day Zero arrives.

The coalition, which has at least 64 organisational affiliates, said in a statement SAB was “highly insulting for your minimalist offer of handing out bottled water to the masses on Day Zero when you receive millions of litres of our spring water for free, every day”.

The coalition referred to the contentious matter of the natural spring where SAB has sourced water for its products.

“Is this all that one of the world’s largest beverage companies can give? This offer of yours is to distract us from the fact that you are continuing to profit from free spring water,” said the coalition.

Financially, the City of Cape Town has been the biggest loser in the water crisis. It has reportedly lost R1,6-billion due to reduced water consumption as it has been selling less water to ratepayers.

In response, the city has introduced water tariff increases from February 1 to raise cash for various water-related projects such as drilling for underground water and desalination.

 

What Other Businesses are Doing

The V&A Waterfront yesterday raised concerns about the effect water cuts would have on its business operations. But said it was making plans to avert this.

Its chief executive David Green said they have been cutting their water use by 53% since 2010.

“This was achieved through a number of measures, including use of borehole and grey water for toilets and irrigation; installing water efficient fittings and proactive pressure management and aggressive leak detection,” said Green.

He said they “can reduce this further… we have reduced water pressure throughout the precinct and we are currently cutting water to all taps, bar one, in each of our public bathrooms, and replacing with hand sanitisers”.

“In addition, we have allocated part of our land to the City of Cape Town to install one of their temporary desalination plants. This desalination plant is currently being built and should be operating and producing water by the end of March 2018,” said Green.

“The V&A Waterfront’s long-term plan is to build our own additional sea water desalination plant, over and above that being built by the city on our premises.

“This will virtually take the precinct off the City of Cape Town’s municipal water supply. We have accelerated this build process and aim to have this producing potable water by next year.”

 

Virgin Active gyms have installed low flow showerheads and taps across 30 clubs in the Western Cape. It also has 40 rainwater harvesting tanks to “store water we procure through donations”.

Virgin’s managing director Ross Faragher-Thomas said yesterday they have “reduced our water consumption by 53% over 2016”.

“We have re-configured plumbing in clubs with pools, to use the pool water for ablutions, providing up to two month’s supply,” he said.

“In clubs without pools, we are connecting our hot water storage tanks with up to 20 thousand litres of water to our ablutions, providing up to a week’s supply.

“Transporting run-off waste water from manufacturing plants to top up our pools. It is filtered and purified through the pool pumps.”

The clubs also now have technology that produces instantly hot water, hand sanitisers, buckets in showers to capture the run-off water to use for flushing toilets and waterless urinals.

Green said they have also “completed environmental surveys for 12 potential boreholes”.

 

Hyprop Investments, the company that owns Canal Walk Shopping Centre, Cape Gate and Somerset Mall, is setting aside R19-million to “safeguard against future water stress” at its centres.

It said in a statement yesterday that its plans include installing large-scale storage tanks both potable and grey water; filtering grey water; and using grey water for flushing of toilets.

The three shopping centres have already restricted urinal flush water and uses grey water to wash and sanitise plant rooms and waste yards.