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Sweeping in Cape Town – A City Running Out of Water

by Malcolm Cameron

Cape Town Map Here I am again in lovely Cape Town, South Africa, one of my favorite cities in the world. A big difference this time is that Cape Town's water supply is down to about 10% after prolonged droughts and rapid expansion of the city's population. The city has grown from around two million in 2005 to around four million today and water storage has not been increased.

Relying on existing water storage in these times of changing weather patterns, climate change, global warming – or whatever a reader would like to call it – combined with rapid population increase is, as Cape Town is finding, a recipe for disaster. Unless significant rain falls into the catchment area very soon, all taps might be turned off. (Fortunately the wineries and breweries are still working...)

Public campaigns to reduce water use have been quite effective: short showers, no baths, taps in public areas and parks capped, toilet flushing to the old saying, "If its yellow let it mellow, if its brown, flush it down." Hand-wash basins in public toilets, hotels, airports and elsewhere have been turned off and chemical hand sanitizers have been supplied instead. The public has responded very well, which has enabled D-Day to be postponed for a couple of months.

Water Supply To learn more about the plight of Cape Town residents and their city's fast dwindling water supply, click on the photo.

Without a doubt, this is the stuff of science fiction novels, except it is happening to real people, in a real city. Cape Town's water crisis is partly a result of an extreme drought spanning several years, a large and growing population of more than four million and changes in climate.

That the city sits at the base of Africa between the Altantic and Indian Oceans and is running out of water is hard for many to understand. Water seems to be everywhere. Potable (drinkable) water, however, is almost gone, and the reservoirs are running dry. Cape Town officials have taken steps to encourage water conservation and limit water consumption. People are saving and reusing water.

How has the water crisis affected street sweeping? We all know water is required to both sweep effectively and reduce dust with sweepers, whether they are mechanical broom, vacuum or air systems. Cape Town City's Solid Works Management Team (Council) is responsible for street cleaning its 22,000 km of roads and they have a huge job to handle. For some years Council has used recycled water from the sewage treatment works for sweepers and street flushing. A fleet of tankers is on call and these make regular stops in pre-determined areas to fill the sweepers.

Non Potable Water The resulting water is quite good – clean enough to run into the river system but still not potable. In the present crisis, this system has been continued with the added task of washing down the sweepers with water supplied from the tankers.

The sweeper washdowns are being done either on the side of the road or in the Council depot's wash bays. Other water supplies have been turned off at the wash bays and garbage compactors are now also being washed with this recycled water.

I was asked to go to Cape Town to help with the hand-over and commissioning of four, 6 cubic meter regenerative air sweepers supplied by Roots Multiclean, the owners of U.S.-based Victory Sweepers. At present the council operates only 14 sweepers, which are composed of nine Johnston vacuum and five Dulevo mechanical sweepers, a small fleet for a city the size of Cape Town. This created a huge task for the sweeping program managers.

The vast majority of Cape Town sits on very sandy soil and the constantly moving, very fine sand is a massive and constant problem. Over the years I have swept streets in a wide range of countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and throughout the Middle East, but I have never seen such harsh sweeping conditions.

Gutter Broom The main reason for my visit was to train the Council's drivers on the use of regenerative air sweepers in order to get the maximum performance and efficiency out of them. In this process I was very ably assisted by Ron McLean from Australia. I consider Ron to be the best sweeper driver in that country.

All together, 17 drivers were trained and this was made a lot easier as the Council operates a large and very professional training center where it trains the operators of all its plants, trucks, garbage compactors, sweepers, cranes and earth-moving equipment.

All vehicle operators must complete a training course in their selected equipment and the majority hold operator certification for a range of vehicles. Once a sweeper driver completes the extensive training program, in addition to being able to operate the sweepers they are qualified to jump into a front-end loader, hook truck or whatever is required. All the drivers we saw were keen to adapt to a new method of sweeping and entered into the task full of enthusiasm. Cape Town City Council is very highly regarded in South Africa as a leader in innovation and efficiency; its structure and management is seen to be an example for others to follow.

Much Debris As we swept through some of the 'settlement' areas of Cape Town there was sand higher than the curbs and spreading up to two meters across the road. Mixed into the sand was litter of every sort: plastic bags, stones, bricks, discarded shoes, food waste, disposable diapers, broken building materials and sand ground into fine talc by passing traffic.

This latter made a dust as fine as smoke. In one street we picked up five tons in 300 meters. Some of these areas are usually worked over by a front-end loader and tip trucks before any sweepers are used.

Sweepers have drop-off areas where large bins, called 'skips,' are located for dumping hopper loads. These bins are collected as necessary by hook-lift trucks and taken to a landfill. Quite often the loads collected cannot fit into bins so they are dumped onto the ground to later be loaded onto tip trucks for landfill disposal. This is an efficient system that is well co-ordinated and managed. Another issue the Council faces is that the bins have to be filled and taken away regularly or they will very quickly fill with other non-Council rubbish.

Cape Town Overview Cape Town is arguably the most beautiful city in South Africa. The magnificent city is sited on a superb harbor and at the foot of famous Table Mountain. The surrounding areas of Hout Harbour provide fresh fish and the Stellenbosch area has superb wines. The stunning scenery of the area also combines to make a visit well worthwhile. Food and wine is comparable to the best in the world and the city has an abundance of excellent restaurants, especially at the beautifully restored Victoria Wharf.

It is difficult to speak of South Africa without making some comment on the political and social problems faced. Since the abolition of apartheid in 1994 the country had the opportunity to become a major economy in Africa. It has good soils and agriculture, an abundance of minerals and is a wonderful area for tourism. However, after the presidency of Nelson Mandela successive governments have let strong, clean government slip through their fingers – while corruption on a vast scale has managed to stick to those same fingers.

The country is full of decent people of all colors who are prepared to work hard and lift their families out of poverty and those settlements we swept through. However, too much money has been diverted from infrastructure programs and these areas have been left at the bottom of the heap. A new president is in place with clear policies to stamp out corruption and put the country back on track. Malcolm CameronWe can only wish him well because this lovely place and people deserve better than they have been getting.

Malcolm Cameron, principal of WJ Cameron and Associates, is a consultant for sales, marketing and training of international equipment. You may reach him via email sent to this link.

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