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September 9, 2010 at 9:53pm

This article, by At van Wyk was written in c.2007/8

Parliament sits astride a rich source of fresh water that spills into the sea in constant streams. It seeps down from Table Mountain and ought to be used in the toilets and for watering the gardens, but the pumping installations are in disrepair and there seems to be indecision as to who should take responsibility, City or State.

The story of the parliamentary underground water dates from 1885, when the Cape Parliament was built.

I first stumbled across it in old parliamentary papers and was given the most recent information by Mr. Raymond Geldenhuys at the site two weeks ago. He is chief plumber of the firm WSP Sidibene, under contract with the Department of Public Works for grounds maintenance.

In 1885 and again in 1985 drainage canals and wells were built for storing the seeping water, referred to as "fountain water" from "our own well" in old reports.

The 1910-1912 Annual Report of the first Union Parliament makes mention of a well in the parliamentary grounds:

"Underneath the flight of steps on the Parliament Street side of the old building there is installed a 3 1/2 h. p. gas engine which works three pumps for pumping water from a well in the vicinity into a large tank under the roof and above the kitchen. This tank, which is capable of holding about 18 000 gallons [81 738 liters] of water, feeds all the water taps in the lavatories and the fire hydrant in the old building."

The "well in the vicinity", which I initially interpreted as under the Cape Parliament, is most probably the one dealt with below and situated "near the northern corner of the Parliamentary grounds". "There is no well under the Cape Parliament," Geldenhuys said, "only remains of pipes and stuff showing that water from the well in the vicinity was once used for air-conditioning."

This tallies with information in reports about the heating and cooling of the old Assembly and Senate. The 1916 report mentions "roof tanks". It was a year of serious droughts with water restrictions in Cape Town and the parliamentary gardens on the verge of ruin - until the municipal water supply was blocked off with stop-cocks "and the supply from our own private well was pumped through the roof tanks" to the garden.

The water - referred to as "fountain water" in 1918 - was somewhat brackish, deleterious for finer plants and had to be filtered at this stage as people were falling ill from using it. Why it was brackish and unhealthy, is not known.

The 1978 report mentions the discovery of an old plan dating back to 1885 showing that a drain had been built around the old Cape Parliament at a depth of approximately ten feet. This agrees with information obtained from Geldenhuys, except that the report refers to "storm-water" and not seepage, which according to Geldenhuys is the major source. Geldenhuys took me on a tour and showed me six water sumps of an average of 3m x 3m x 1 1/2m under Stal Plein. They are under the lowest level of the parking area, some eight meters underground. Except for some rainwater down the drive-way into one sump, the main supply for all six sumps is seepage from the mountain. As they fill up the water is pumped to a well with a capacity of 100 000 liters under the steps of the National Assembly. The water is meant for use in the toilets and for watering the gardens but the installations are in disrepair, hence every hour and a half the water is pumped out again to prevent flooding. It runs down the open rainwater ditch at the front of the building into a manhole between the new and the old buildings. And from there it dissipates to goodness knows where, because the manhole is meters below the municipal pipe down Parliament Street. "Furthermore," Geldenhuys said, "the two bordering manholes were plugged with building rubble during the last construction phase." According to him these manholes together with a series of others lie in a horse-shoe pattern around the Cape Parliament, with the open end between the northern wall and the Queen Victoria monument.

This falls in line with the 1978 report which says the water "is carried to a well near the northern corner of the Parliamentary grounds. The heavy iron covers of the well are to be seen next to the path in the garden." Geldenhuys opened these covers and we went ten feet down iron steps into the manhole to a well at the bottom. "We can pump water from this well to the gardens," Geldenhuys said, "but it is so clogged with sand that its capacity is not nearly what it should be." The water in the well lies 'n fraction below an outlet of about a meter in diameter that takes any overflow down the Adderley Street canals to the sea. On the outside of the manhole and along the steel fence down the length of the Gardens' boundary water seeping from the mountain runs in an open canal to the sea. Some distance into the Gardens a pipe of 450 mm in diameter takes another stream into the Adderley Street canal of 1,6 meters - also to the sea. Another pipe of 600 mm in diameter takes seepage from the mountain across the top part of the Gardens, round the corner of the National Assembly and down Parliament Street to the sea. Together it is a lot of water, spilling into the sea in rain or drought.

Elsewhere below Table Mountain other and bigger streams go waste. In the 1950s the then City Fathers demolished the farm Oranjezicht to build a bowling club. All that remains of Oranjezicht is its name. The club is non-existent today and the greens overgrown grass lands, with at the bottom-end of the site several bubbling fountains which together, I was told, send two million liters of water per day to the sea.

A block or so above the Mountain Nelson, where the water for its gardens bubbles from an enclosed fountain, Mr. Koos Bekker, Chief of the publishing house Naspers, had made money available for turning an overgrown swamp-site into a bird sanctuary. It is taking shape beautifully under the hands of landscape architect Stein Swart.

Cape Town has plenty of water - spilling into the sea.

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