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Zero to hero? Groundwater to the rescue!

I want to take you a few years back in time; about three… to early 2018. A time that earned its own title: Day Zero. Do you remember the scenes during that dreadful period?

There were buckets on shower floors, toilets standing unflushed and huge brown and green plastic rain tanks popping up in gardens and business parks across Cape Town. And, if you’re a Capetonian, perhaps you can still feel the anxiety and uncertainty of not knowing whether the next day would be the day that the taps ran out of water?

© Andrea Weiss WWF South Africa
Queues of Capetonians waiting to collect spring water was a common sight in 2018.

Water was a topic that was pretty much constantly on everyone’s mind during Day Zero. It was the topic of most teatime discussions. Initially, the water talk was ‘‘surficial’’ – relating only to the water on the surface – sharing images of dust-blown almost-empty dam surfaces and shocking statistics on rapidly dropping dam levels. But with the situation getting more dire day by day, the talk got deeper, more intense, until the topic of groundwater shared the stage with the dams. Sometimes groundwater even took center stage.

The spotlight suddenly fell on a water resource that for most people is unfamiliar and unknown.

What did we really know about this invisible resource?

The Day Zero period sparked a huge interest in groundwater from people from various walks of life. Capetonians wanted to know at what depth they will find groundwater on their property, farmers were interested in expected yields of boreholes and click-happy social media users were worried about saltwater intrusion and drying springs. Which brings another image of that period to mind: monstrous trucks – with high drill rig towers and huge generators – being escorted through the often narrow roads of affluent Cape Town neighbourhoods. To do what? Yes, to drill yet another borehole.

As a hydrogeologist, I got bombarded during Day Zero with questions from friends and strangers alike: Will I find groundwater if I drill on my property? What is the quality of the groundwater in my area? How deep is the groundwater under the ground surface? How will I know when I use more groundwater than what is available?

© GEOSS
For the Capetonians who could afford it, installing a borehole was in high demand during Day Zero.
Digging deep

In 2018, WWF South Africa formulated some of the commonly asked groundwater questions into a pilot project that was kindly funded by AB InBev, who ask themselves the same question because their long-standing beer production facility in Newlands is entirely groundwater dependent. In a two-year study, we targeted the two Cape Town areas of Epping Industria and Newlands where groundwater was not monitored by the city, but where we had reason to suspect a high prevalence of private boreholes. Through the project, and with the kind cooperation of private residents and businesses, we have placed six dataloggers into each of the two pilot areas. These enable us to gather regular data at specified points to monitor the water level – both seasonally and over time. This is the start of a city-wide monitoring network.

We also produced two groundwater videos for residents to first understand the value of Cape Town’s groundwater and then a practical step-by-step video to measure their own water level in their boreholes

Most importantly, the pilot also brought together founding members for a groundwater-focussed partnership in the Table Mountain Water Source Area.

We were delighted that the Danish Embassy was able to give this groundwater pilot work – and the budding partnership – a financial boost. In October 2020, the Danish Embassy provided significant funds for a two-year multi-layered initiative that would ambitiously take the pilot study successes from the AB InBev project and boost groundwater in Cape Town from six different activity angles.

Boosting groundwater understanding in six ways

  1. Raising groundwater awareness in the City of Cape Town area through schools and faith groups.

  2. Expanding the groundwater monitoring network to additional areas with the help of residents.

  3. Developing a publicly accessible database and ‘‘groundwater dashboard’’ for Capetonians and other interested parties to see the monitoring data over time.

  4. Creating a learning exchange between the City of Cape Town and a key Danish company that develops relevant software for the City’s bulk water decision support system. (Ultimately, this will help to integrate city groundwater data into the overall system.)

  5. Critically analysing the local and national groundwater policy and related governance challenges to understand the context in which a successful community-public-private partnership can function.

  6. Nurturing and cocreating the actual Table Mountain Water Source Partnership to a point where it is officially launched and has a clear vision and way forward.

WWF has partnered with a wide range of specialists to actively engage at all these levels simultaneously.

© WWF South Africa
Young people from six different denominations are going to journey together for a year, exploring issues of water , faith and action in Cape Town.
What are some of the groundwater wins so far?

Bringing groundwater not only to the fore, but into our hearts and souls is the mission of the Green Anglicans, a movement started by the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. Reverend Rachel Mash, who heads up the Green Anglicans, has been incorporating positive messages into Sunday school lessons about the value of fresh water, springs and the interconnectedness of ‘‘invisible water’’. She has spread this message across a wide range of church services, national and international speeches, interfaith events and even webinars. As part of the Green Anglican groundwater outreach, youth were encouraged to get involved too. Lead by Bino Makhalanyane, a group of voluntary ‘‘water disciples’’ have been exploring the full cyclic journey of water, linking it to scripture and giving it deeper meaning to the youngsters they interact with.

The message from the Green Anglicans is clear: groundwater is a vital part of our water cycle, it is beneath our feet and has spiritual value, therefore we should be stewards to protect and save it.

In 2021 the educational and environmental NPO Greenpop developed curriculum materials for Grades 4, 5 and 7 learners to support early learning about groundwater. They produced some funky groundwater video clips for kids and engaged with over 3 000 learners from primary schools in Cape Town. They also ran a very successful groundwater poster competition which revealed some amazing creativity.

Our dream going forward? To find a permanent spot for groundwater in the school curriculum.

© Dimpho Lephaila WWF South Africa
Lami-ah Solomons of Kannemeyer Primary in Cape Town with her winning groundwater poster.
How else have we grown our groundwater understanding?

Groundwater work would not happen without the people that actually think about groundwater every day. The hydrogeology company GEOSS set up the initial monitoring points in the Epping and Newlands areas. They are now in charge of expanding the groundwater monitoring network into four more suburbs in Cape Town: Brackenfell, Bergvliet, Noordhoek and Kommetjie, and they will rope in the city’s monitoring network around Philippi.

Thanks to our funders, we can install electronic dataloggers in boreholes of volunteering private residents and businesses, who are eager to learn how groundwater levels behave as a result of pumping, rainfall patterns, and of course more frequent droughts. These dataloggers record the behaviour or change in the depth of the groundwater level beneath the ground surface. Why are we doing this? Because there is plenty of use of groundwater in Cape Town, but there is actually very little monitoring. It is a bit like driving a car without a fuel gauge. We need to know what is ‘‘in the tank’’ – hence we need to start measuring!

© Marlese Nel
Measuring groundwater levels.
And what happens to the data that we collect from the monitoring points?

Good question! The water level info belongs to all of the volunteers and all curious Capetonians.

WWF, in collaboration with an IT-groundwater fundi, is currently building a database and digital dashboard for interested Capetonians and data-hungry scientists and decision makers to access this info. The data from the monitoring points will be updated regularly on the database and residents will be able to get some very interesting information about groundwater in Cape Town, e.g., the number of confirmed boreholes in each neighbourhood and typical groundwater levels and quality. The dashboard will be launched in 2022.

The aim is to keep building on the datasets, so that our collective groundwater information has a central point that can be accessed by all.

But why should you even care about groundwater?

While you are reading this right now, you might be wondering why you should care at all about groundwater, or even this project. Well, you can decide: how important is it to you to have big, healthy trees that can provide us with shade and oxygen or to have healthy well-functioning wetlands that provide an environment where birds and frogs can breed. And what about clean drinking water – we all need that right?

Yes, and the City of Cape Town is now adding groundwater to their water supply infrastructure to avoid another Day Zero. Many residents have also invested in a borehole or wellpoint. As we use more and more groundwater, we had better make it our business to learn and care more about this invisible resource under our feet since our actions and activities could have an influence on the quality and quantity of groundwater that ends up in our taps and hosepipes.

Is there anything we can actually do about it?

How can we as homeowners/individuals/communities/businesses/NGOs/educational institutions and government institutions become involved in managing and caring for a resource that we are jointly responsible for? We at WWF believe that a collaborative partnership approach is the most appropriate, where many different stakeholders can contribute to the governance of groundwater, starting with monitoring and open information sharing, so that we all know how the water beneath our feet is behaving. The aim is to bring in community voices, to support existing mandated government bodies, to mobilise the public and the private sector, and to provide a sharing platform for interested persons to ask questions, raise concerns or discuss collaboration efforts. All these efforts are done to ensure that our groundwater resources become part of what we manage and know about, making it possible to use this resource in a sustainable manner and let the buckets in showers remain in our memories. Not our futures.

© WWF South Africa
The Table Mountain Water Source Partnership was founded and officially launched on 15 November 2021.
Marlese Nel Photo
Marlese Nel , Project Manager: Table Mountain Water Source Partnership

Marlese is passionate about science communication and specifically about groundwater. This invisible resource fascinates her, and she aims to show the value of groundwater in tangible ways. In her role with WWF, she coordinates the groundwater project and convenes the Table Mountain Water Source Partnership which aims to improve water security through groundwater monitoring, improved governance and management.

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