(This article was first published on 3 February 2018 in the Weekend Argus, a weekly regional newspaper distributed in the Western Cape, South Africa.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Water flowing under central Cape Town directly into the ocean might be natural but it is not all safe for drinking, warned a local researcher this week.

Caron von Zeil, an academic whose research about the city’s underground water has been resurfacing, said many of the springs where this water could be accessed are polluted.

The water runs from Table Mountain in canals built during the colonial period.

Von Zeil’s project Reclaim Camissa has been about finding ways to use this water. It has been in the news for close on a decade but City of Cape Town or provincial government officials have not worked towards harvesting this water.

An underground water channel in Cape Town. Picture: Reclaim Camissa

Von Zeil cautioned this week though that most of the springs – she has located 31 in total – carry e.coli bacteria, which would lead to severe stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting.

“These springs have not been protected to date and many are currently polluted. We will have a populace with health issues not something we need in this time of crisis,” she said.

Von Zeil said she had maps of where the springs were located and also reportedly said large water reserves exists under Parliament buildings on Plein Street in the city centre.

She said Reclaim Camissa was meanwhile “monitoring one of the many tunnels, which alone carries 8.8mil litres of water to the ocean daily”.

Xanthea Limberg, the city’s mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water and waste services, said the city had “explored in detail whether 69 springs identified on Table Mountain could be incorporated into the drinking water system”.

“The city does currently produce 2,8 million litres of drinking water per day from the Albion Spring in Newlands, and has recently commissioned a new project to produce approximately 2 million litres of drinking water per day from the Oranjezicht Main Springs Chamber,” she said.

“In the case of other springs it has been found that flow is too small to justify the cost of staff and infrastructure required to treat the water to drinking standards.”

She added: “In the interest of ratepayers, the city must ensure that augmentation schemes offer value for money. Procuring greater volumes of water could be done more economically, for instance via aquifer abstraction or the treatment of wastewater, and the city is rather pursuing these options.”

Limberg said that “even if all water from the springs could be incorporated into the drinking water system, they would only be able to service a tiny fraction of the city’s water requirements”.

“In terms of the unused spring water, the city is exploring whether this water could be used for non-potable purposes such as irrigation, as this does not carry the same associated infrastructure costs, and would also take pressure off potable water reserves,” said Limberg.

“The city has applied to the national department of water and sanitation to authorise the City to use the water in this way.”

Independent Media, publishers on this newspaper, reported a few years ago on Reclaim Camissa. It reported that “most of the springs and rivers that flow from Table Mountain have been paved over and forgotten, and every day millions of litres of fresh mountain water rushes away unused into drains or sewers”.

It added: “Reclaim Camissa won first prize in the 2010 Multiplicity competition for inclusion in the city council’s winning bid for the World Design Capital and it was recognised by the Cape Town Partnership as ‘One of the Big Five Ideas’ for the city.”

Von Zeil has also said in one of her public talks that the underground water, if accessed and treated, could be part of the city’s water strategy.

Reclaim Camissa has also warned that groundwater should be protected to “allow for recharge of the aquifers”.

Part of its mandate is to “provide a stewardship for the waters that flow from Table Mountain to the Atlantic Ocean, that will reclaim Cape Town’s central city connection to the water.”

It says the innercity’s underground water system need to be protected and improved. It also recommends the need for a business model to “generate revenue for on-going management, maintenance and operation”.

The World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa in its third Water File released this week focused on securing safe drinking water.

It warned of bacteria in untreated water, which could lead to diseases. It said Newlands and Muizenberg springs, where most locals are getting their natural water from presently, are not “regularly tested by authorities”.

“Regular drinking of this water without treatment is left to your own judgement and it is at your own risk,” it said.

It added: “During water outages, pipes will stand empty and there is a risk of soil water flowing into the pipes at places where there are cracks. So when the taps are turned back on, be careful about drinking it.

“Basic treatment, like boiling, is advised in places where water interruptions have happened in our taps. It will be the responsibility of the city, to alert us if water quality changes.”

Limberg said yesterday they advised locals to boil water from springs as “this is water is not quality controlled, and could be contaminated”.