‘ Is Cape Town and Cape Point Drinking Water Safe?’ –
The Cape Town city authorities keep telling us it is, however it has been hard to miss recently that the water quality seems less than desirable on the Cape Point Peninsula. There have been several times in the last few months that the water from the taps has had a distinctive ‘earthy’ smell to it. It is so strong a smell that it is still present even after boiling.
And it doesn’t stop at smell; you can definitely taste it in the water too. There is a definite ‘essence of pond’ present, with delicate overtones of ‘damp earth’.
This isn’t the first time that the smell and taste has been present in the Cape Town and Cape Point drinking water. Reports from 2009 have a similar theme to them. It leads you to question whether the Cape Town water is safe to drink or not.
At first, without any further reports to go on, I was suspicious of the ongoing road works down main road, and whether they had contributed to the taste. It seems likely that anything compromising such a vital aquifer would undoubtedly affect the quality of water in the Cape Point Peninsula. However, the reports point to a much wider problem affecting more than just the Cape Point water supply- this is a city wide problem.
This doesn’t make me feel any better: in some ways it would be preferable if the Cape Point water supply was only being compromised by a leaking pipe as this would be very fixable.
Water integrity is essential to life anywhere on planet earth, none more so than in areas such as Cape Town & the Cape Point Peninsula.
We have a very dangerous set of circumstances when it comes to a good, secure fresh water supply. Cape Point and the city of Cape Town has a large metropolitan population with a healthy smattering of heavy industry; all situated in an area which at times can be considered as semi arid. Although there is a healthy annual rain fall it is very seasonal, making it essential that sufficient winter rainfall is captured to see us through the summer months, when it is likely that we will see little, if any, rain.
The natural habitat is very well adapted to such conditions; in fact, the majority of fynbos species do not rely on rainfall for their water supply. Many plant species in the Cape Point floral kingdom get far more water from capturing moisture in the atmosphere than they do from actual rain fall (hence the prevalence of feathery leaves and fronds.)
Unfortunately we are not so well adapted to life without water. Apart from anything else much of our industry is heavily reliant on having copious amounts of water ‘on-tap’ and that is before the needs of agriculture are taking into account. The fact that the average Cape Town family gets through 37000 liters a month does not help the situation.
Recently a combination of factors ranging from natural weather cycles, pollution, sun spot activity, melting ice caps and butterflies beating there wings in Brazil have led to a reduction in winter rainfall in the Cape Point area, putting serious pressure on Cape Town’s water supplies through the summer months. This obviously is worst at the end of summer, beginning of autumn, as this is when the dams are at there lowest.
Year on year the Cape Town dam levels have been peaking lower and lower, rainfall has dropped, and demand has risen. To date we have not run out of water, and only certain water restriction have been required, but the party cannot go on forever unless something changes, and it seems likeliest that it is us that must change our habits.
Ultimately we run the risk of severe water shortages if action is not taken, though at present it is unclear whether the current change in rainfall patterns for the Cape Point Peninsula and Cape Town are permanent or not.
The lowering of dam levels is already affecting us, with biological changes in the dams’ ecosystems giving rise to all sorts of unforeseen knock-on effects.
A reduction in the water surface areas, higher levels of sun strength lead to an increase in the level of bacteria, algae and other microbes in the dams. When a large enough concentration of these microbes dies they produce a substance called ‘geosmin’.
Geosmin is the substance that causes all earthy smells, from leaf mold to the smell after rain fall. Sometime its smell is welcomed, not so in the drinking water.
The jury is still out in the scientific world as to whether geosmin is a health hazard. At high enough levels all things are toxic (even the water itself highly poisonous at high enough levels- in fact, as a high school science project an American pupil convinced his local town that they should ban a substance called dihydrogen monoxide, after pointing out all the dangerous features of the substance- google it, its funny). What is in some doubt is the level at which the substance becomes hazardous to health.
Humans are capable of detecting very low levels of geosmin, measured in parts per trillion, so although there way be a very strong taste and smell in the Cape Town water supply, it is not an indicator of massive levels of the substance.
The Cape Town water authorities have been quoted in several media sources as stating that levels are in the region of 10-15 ng/l, in which ng is a nano gram, or a billionth of a gram. They state that at this level the water is safe to drink.
That my nose wrinkles at the smell of the water and I am reticent to drink it suggest that my body thinks differently.
Can I safely drink the water supplied by Cape Town and Cape Points’ reservoirs?
Do I want to drink water that smells like it was soaked with dead leaves?
I find it unacceptable that authorities can so flippantly treat the issue-‘oh, it’s perfectly safe to drink.’ Great, is that what I pay rates for? If I wanted earthy water I could have a tub in the garden.
So what can you do about the smell and taste of the Cape Town and Cape Point water?
First, boiling won’t make any difference! Geosmin is very resilient and not technically alive so boiling doesn’t get rid of it: I know because I have tried and I could still taste it in my tea!
If you really do feel that there is a danger to your health and have more money than Rockefeller then you could buy bottled water. Bottled water to me is one of the biggest cons of the 20th Century (Evian spelt backwards is Naïve). If you think about a company that is tapping into natural springs in a specific location, how can they increase production to cope with a global demand? And since a lot of Cape Town suburbs do not have a good recycle system the environmental impact is huge. Not to mention that unless the source is close to Cape Town and the Cape Point Peninsula the carbon footprint is probably huge!
What seems to be working just as well is a good old fashioned water filter. We have been using one in our kitchen for years now, and if for some reason you taste the tap water after you have gotten used to filtering it tastes disgusting at the best of times. Right now I am even using the filtered water for the kettle, as boiling is not removing the earthy taste from the Cape Point water supply. We have one of those fancy jobs that sits under the counter with a dedicated tap; water is filtered through a canister full of filtering agents which effectively scrubs the water clean. Ours came from H2O International in Longbeach Mall (click this link to go to web site) and was really no fuss at all, they even came and fitted it for us. The filter sits under the counter with a dedicated tap on the work surface (which they also fitted). I was sceptical at first as to whether it was really necessary, now it would be the first thing on the list to get if we moved to a house without one. (Mike tells me that they can also solve a lot of the baboon issues on the Cape Point Peninsula with their range of food disposal systems- but we don’t have that issue in our house and all our food waste goes to the worm farm.)
For more information on water filters contact Cape Point resident expert: