Water, water everywhere, and not a wink of sleep
A water activist has got people streaming to an affluent Cape Town suburb, but residents say it's illegal
An army lance-corporal collecting water for his troops makes way for the older woman behind him to fill two 25-litre containers with water.
“Ma’am, I can see that you are more advanced in age than I. I will wait before I fill my next tanks so you can go next,” he says, smiling.
Under the trees at the edge of a small river that runs through the affluent suburb of Newlands, a scene resembling an Old Testament well plays out every day.
Protruding from the ground at the end of Springs Way, a makeshift system of PVC pipes held up by wood and bricks provides a constant stream of water under the shade of a big tree. A mosaic of subtropical ravine forest in the background and a babbling brook complete the scene.
People drive from as far as Delft, 30km away, to collect water for drinking and household use and, even as the threat of Day Zero fades from the collective memory, as many as 7,000 residents arrive at the natural spring every day.Riyaz Rawoot, a self-described water “revolutionary”, says he took it upon himself to install the system early last year, turning it from a single outlet to one that serves about a dozen people at a time. And he says there are plans in the pipeline to tap into other springs around Table Mountain.
“The council has shown that it is incapable, unwilling to supply people with water. There are 70 water points around Table Mountain alone. There are another 30 springs across the Cape Flats that I know of, and they’re not making it accessible, using various excuses,” he says.
But not all is well in paradise. Residents in the area complain that noise and traffic have become unbearable.The City of Cape Town has deployed traffic police and law enforcement officers to stop trucks and cars driving down Springs Way, and residential pavements have become parking lots for everything from luxury SUVs to building contractors’ trucks.
Video footage from a resident’s CCTV system shows bakkies being filled with hundreds of litres of water, and residents claiming the spring is being abused.
Ward councillor Ian Iversen told Times Select it had been an “horrific situation” for residents.
“It’s totally illegal. I’ve had dealings with [Rawoot] and it goes back many months. He just claimed that he had permission from the roads branch, and they said absolutely not, then he claimed the water branch had given him permission and he spread a story that I had given him permission, which is equal nonsense,” he said.
Iverson speculated that Rawoot had a deal with the water carriers, giving him a 20% cut of the tips they make.Rawoot denied making money from the spring, and said there should be no cap on how much water people were allowed to take. Although he sympathised with residents plagued by noise and traffic, he blamed the city council for failing to make proper use of springs.
“The noise in the parking lot is of concern; solutions have been suggested to council ... and there hasn’t been any kind of communication and it’s in large part their doing,” said Rawoot.
“Water is a human right and it is part of the Constitution, so water should be free. Right now the restrictions are unreasonable, just plain silly.
“Understandably under the circumstances of drought there should be better control, but we’ve also got other sources of water that are not being tapped into.”
Rawoot, a physiotherapist, said he was at the site about three hours a day. “There are no costs involved. The reason for doing it? It feels good, just simply making other people’s lives easier,” he said.A resident who wanted to remain anonymous, fearing victimisation, said since Day Zero had been postponed visits to the area had increased exponentially, and he put this down to dramatically increased water tariffs and harsh penalties for overuse.
He said the Newlands Ratepayers Association had not seen the water-use certificates Rawoot claimed to have for the installation of the distribution system.
“We are witnessing stuff ... that I think is unlawful. I haven’t seen the city’s water-use licence for this point ... but I’m sure it prohibits extraction of water for commercial use,” said the resident.
“That’s our frustration. It’s not families collecting water for personal consumption for a week at a time, it’s trucks coming in here loading many litres of water.”
The spring has water marshals and trolley pushers, and one can put in an order for as much water as one wants. Bib-wearing entrepreneurs fill it in return for a tip.Residents at Creswell House old-age home at the end of Springs Way said the noise of trolleys ferrying water night and day to cars at the end of the street kept them awake.
Alice Sampson has been living in the home for 17 years. She said that they longed for the peace and quiet they used to enjoy to return.
“My husband and I used to play here in the street, we used to play Frisbee in the street. Now we can’t, man, and we’re much older, my husband died,” said Sampson.
She said the council had promised for months that the collection point would be moved to a different location.
“The mere fact that people have moved out of a retirement complex gives an indication of the impact that they are having in the area,” said Iversen.
“What has happened is that residents generally collect water in the day and in the evening, but we suspect — and it can’t be proved — that commercial people like hotels and restaurants and people might be selling water. They come in the evening.”
Iversen said the city council had obtained government permission to manage water from the spring, and would transfer three million litres a day into the municipal water system.
“Some of the water will still go into the river for environmental reasons, to keep the frogs and the toads and other things happy and alive,” said Iversen.The collection point would be moved to Newlands swimming pool, where people would still be able to collect water free of charge.
“What’s happening at the moment has a negative impact but it’s especially bloody awful when it’s bloody 24/7. It just never stops at the moment,” he said.
For people coming to collect water the spring has come to resemble sharing and communal living. Like many collectors, Sarah Pitout said she was convinced the quality of the water flowing out of the mountain was better than that flowing through the pipes in her home.
“We’ve been doing it for at least five years. I got sick a couple of times and I wasn’t sure if it was because I was drinking the tap water still, and if that’s what it was I didn’t want it to happen again and so we come once a week,” she said.
She fills up six five-litre water bottles, and since they started drinking the water she hasn’t been sick again.
“It definitely has become a weekly ritual for us. It’s quite unusual to see different people from different social classes helping each other which is quite unusual for a very white suburb in the middle of a wealthy part of Cape Town you know. It’s cool,” said Pitout.