Cape Town drought forcing rethink in some industries‚ boom in others

Cape Town’s water crisis has forced a change in many businesses and some are thriving‚ while others struggle to make it through the prolonged dry spell.

A close look at three different industries‚ borehole drilling‚ water tanks and nurseries‚ reveals that even in drought‚ some trades can boom while others must find new ways to adapt to the arid landscape.

Borehole drilling has soared in the Western Cape as residents look for alternatives to the municipal water that is so tightly controlled.

“As usually happens with any drought conditions‚ the phones start ringing off the hook‚” said John Tonkin‚ editor of Borehole Water Journal Online.

One place where phones have been ringing more than usual is Umvoto‚ a ground water consultancy. Dylan Blake‚ a senior geologist at the company‚ said two years ago he would get about one call a month from private home owners asking about a borehole in their garden.

Now‚ he said he gets around 10 per week‚ a huge increase for a company that specialises mainly in industry consulting and not private citizens.

Perhaps not surprisingly‚ installation of water tanks that store rainwater has also soared. JoJo Tanks‚ South Africa’s largest supplier‚ has seen an astronomical increase in their sales in recent months.

The number of vertical water tanks sold in the Western Cape province has increased 186% since October compared with the same period a year earlier. The increase in sales in Cape Town has been 300%.

Blake said he has also seen an associated spike in drilling companies in the province‚ at least five in the past year.

“Some guys are coming from the Eastern Cape‚ some as far away as Limpopo to drill around Cape Town‚” he said.

Blake said the main company that Umvoto uses to drill is already booked through the end of 2017.

Although more boreholes are being dug‚ Cape Town residents are doing less planting and some nurseries are feeling the pinch. Heavy regulating of water has resulted in some residents cutting back on gardens. Last week the city announced it was considering Level 4 restrictions: no municipal water for outside and non-essential use.

Since that day‚ Richard Morris‚ a manager at Starke Ayres Garden Centre‚ said his stores have seen a 37% drop in turnover compared to the same week last year.

“Our client base is essentially purchasing succulents and only succulents‚” he said. Succulents are plants that require much less watering than other plants‚ usually around once a week.

He said they have also seen an increase in artificial lawn installations. “Lawns have been sacrificed‚” Morris said.

At one nursery in Cape Town‚ Dr Boomslang’s Indigenous Nursery‚ Phelo Bambinkala said sales have slowed considerably in recent months. The industry in total employs over 4‚000 people in and around Cape Town.

“They’re not buying much now‚” she said. “It’s difficult to garden now because of the drought.”

Her shop is now selling mostly succulent plants and indigenous mountain plants‚ both types that use much less water than typical plants.

“We are struggling with it but we are getting some customers who want indigenous and water-wise [plants]‚” said Bambinkala‚ who is in charge of ordering plants for the store.

One consequence of the increased demand for succulents is less variety‚ according to Morris‚ because there are fewer succulents available and those that are available are “all ankle to knee high‚” he said.

For some customers who already have entrenched gardens‚ Bambinkala said it would be quite difficult to change their plants to succulents from most water-needy tropical plants. She said the tropical plants will most likely die in the coming weeks because the city has banned using municipal water for gardens and some plants do not like the water from boreholes.

Her advice for gardeners during the drought is to stock up on water-wise plants‚ both for the immediate crisis and any future droughts Capetonians might endure.


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