His eyes were more bloodshot than usual but widened with his sceptical response; “Ai neffer dreenk warter… can ai do it wif beer?”

By Steve Shapiro

This feature first appeared in the March edition of Ride.

No, my Namibian farmer friend, great glugs of bitter brew before passing out will not lessen tomorrow’s babelaas, nor will they facilitate the successful running of a major cycling event, in a time of almost catastrophic drought. You need water and the top organisers of these competitive sporting adventures, particularly in the desiccated Western Cape, are all applying their creative genius to making sure that it’s available.

Road and off-road have different yet similar requirements and, of course, duration is critical but, ultimately, all are involved with guarding and prolonging what has become our most precious natural asset. It is, if nothing else, for historic and experiential reasons, the only road thinkers with whom I first posed the question. The Cape Town Cycle Tour, or the Argus, and David Bellairs, generalissimo of the world’s biggest timed bicycle race has for many years run the campaign which is akin to a military exercise across the range of logistic experience. Amazingly, it keeps on getting better and uses less and less valuable potable H2O. I have long thought that the top brass at 65 Avenue de Mist would do a damn good job of running the City of Cape Town, and even the whole country – although the latter challenge is attended by an historic bar so low that anyone taking it on would be in real danger of terminally stubbing their toes.

Bellairs exudes a persona of competence and charm and he most definitely has his finger on the pulse. He and his team face a monumental challenge and only time will tell how successful they are. With their own competence, and allied with outside contractors, “We have ticked box by box on how we can reduce our dependence on city water to zero, and that will be achieved!”

Recent moves follow the engagement of an independent survey company which analysed all water use from the washing of dishes for hospitality tents and VIP areas. Chemical toilets will draw on grey water mixers and use will be made of desalinated water from a private operation in the Waterfront area. Drinkable water will be brought in from outside Cape Town and kept in tanks at the start area, allowing and encouraging cyclists not to fill their bottles at home or in hired accommodation: a saving of 35 000 x 1.5 litres by starting competitors. “This should be how we normally operate,” says Bellairs. The organisers will be working closely with the City of Cape Town and visitors will be sent water-saving tips, including showering, via SMS and email. This, he feels will be of considerable saving benefit compared with normal tourist occupation.

The Cycle Tour organisers have a long history of sensitivity to environmental challenges. “We always aim to leave the route cleaner than when we found it,” stresses Bellairs. (Given the current mess around city streets, that too should easily be within their reach.) They also have a variety of alternative routes should the race be threatened by fires, adverse weather or political unrest. “It is important to remember that this event generates a large amount of money for charities and cycling projects, which will be adversely affected if the event fails to take place.”

When it comes to off-road and particularly but not exclusively stage events, I have had a long and worthwhile relationship with Dryland, a small but enthusiastic Oudtshoorn-based company. They try new things and, if these show promise, they nurture them; if the ride doesn’t measure up, they drop it – that’s business. Their mountain-bike races, extreme and well, less extreme, range from the hardcore Attakwas Challenge to their flagship, six-day Cape Pioneer Trek. The three-day Storms River Traverse seems to have started a trend towards adventure rides balanced with comfortable (even indulgent) social interaction: all the trappings of tougher, longer races and decent board and lodging.

At the moment, almost all of Dryland’s MTB events are or have been in areas blessed with good rains. The exception is the Tankwa Trek which, in recent years, has become a spectacularly successful headliner on the mountain-bike calendar. With meticulous preparations, even the frazzled circumstances of what is, in any case, a dry, hot situation in an even drier, hotter environment, has been given their practised and efficient logistical focus. With water donated by the Oudtshoorn Municipality trucked in, there is no reason to believe this spectacular (but extremely tough) race will become another victim of climate change. Carel Herholdt who (with Henco Rademeyer) founded Dryland, adds that the growing awareness of the country’s drought crisis will manifest in the use of biodegradable detergents in showers and bike washes, allowing the residue to run into farmers’ lands. This will become standard practice, irrespective of in situ water availability.

However, there is another Dryland innovation which is even more worthy of acclaim, and which will hopefully be embraced by other organisations in the event management business.
This option, a World Wildlife Fund concept, has been enriched by the pure genius and thinking of an exceptional and delightful brain. Katot Meyer is the Klein Karoo. A qualified water engineer who (to my mind) is also open to kudos for not owning a cellular telephone or an Internet connection. He is to be found most days and many nights walking barefoot through his beloved, peerless turf and you have to wait for him to get home (the next day if you’re lucky) so that his wife can give him your message. For many years he has been closely associated with Dryland and has co-authored, with Henco, some very challenging trails in true wilderness areas. But his latest co-operation with his Klein Karoo comrades is something I think should be emulated countrywide by all trail riding organisers, and it’s about creative water conservation.

With Katot’s prompting, Dryland picked up the tab for an ambitious, exotic tree clearing project in a river catchment area which has so far doubled the flow in a stewardship nature reserve. I must admit that the idea was immediately appealing to me and I saw a huge potential in expanding it nationally to at least the many MTB event organisations operating in this field. Apart from its actual conservation rewards, the positive PR rewards for the sport would be enormous. Katot acknowledges that the scheme is a World Wildlife Fund initiative, but my attempts to get the prestigious organisation to become involved in spreading the idea through the many events in South Africa initially met with deep disappointment. An officer of the WWF, who admits to involvement in a massive scheme of this kind in the Eastern Cape, showed no knowledge or interest in the Dryland exercise and when I suggested promoting the plan to similar companies might also be of great value to conservation generally, he showed a disconcerting lack of interest and enthusiasm. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pursued and I’ve been promised a follow-up from the WWF.

In Dryland terms, the company has been able to create a most favourable water balance. If, says Katot, you can clear one hectare in a catchment area, you are clearing 2  400m³ in the cleared core of the river ‒ in this case 15m on both sides ‒ doubling the flow of what had previously been a water-clogging wattle forest.

Now the water supplies 360 RDP houses in the area at a one-off cost of R100 per household and Dryland has more than balanced its responsibility. This is even before their usual water-saving methods mentioned earlier, and have quickly balanced their water usage for, say the six-day Pioneer Trek, with plenty left over (just one hectare would have done it). Katot’s bottom line is “we must get involved in catchment area conservation”. And anyone can do it; there are 30 sites in the Klein Karoo alone. Katot knows the science and working within an original WWF scenario this information should be available to any route organisers. But it isn’t.

Katot himself is terribly proud of the achievement and is keen to have successes like this worked into event routes, so competitors can see where their money is going. It is acknowledged by many event organisers, nationally, that conservation exists on a broad front and its tourist/educational potential is immeasurable.

Stillwater Sports is perhaps a little smaller in MTB matters, these days and their manager in this area, Hans de Ridder, says the basics implemented since last year will be continued for this year’s Fedhealth MTB Challenge and BUCO Origin of trails. There are no showers, no bike wash and, as competitors will not be sleeping over in Stellenbosch, they will be urged to do the necessary at home and come to the events with home-filled hydration packs. There will be fewer cups at the water points.

Of course, the big one in terms of stage races with international prominence is, unarguably, the Cape Epic. With some of the stages in or very near to water crisis areas, their plans and logistical processes are critical, not only to the actual event, but also to the enquiring eye of the world press. With that in mind, their media office has released some commendable statements of intention. “We will use no more than 50 litres per person per day of potable and non-potable water in the race village,” spokesperson, Sarah Harrop, told me. “Water for consumption (potable) will be secured from various municipalities on the route and usage carefully calculated. Non-potable water will have been pumped or collected: it will be filtered, used, collected again and reused,” she said. “Our goal is to use as little municipal water as possible.” In line with this goal “all non-potable water will be processed through a filtration system and used for the race showers, before being recollected and recycled to use in the bike wash.” Riders will be encouraged to switch off the shower taps while soaping and to use water for rinsing only. “We’re investigating the option of installing 30-second beepers and urging riders to aim for 90 seconds or less.” A worthy regulation for the bike wash is only working parts will be cleaned. So, you’ll be able to display muddy skid marks, if you can find mud!

“There will be no showers or bike wash on registration day at UCT.” The showers will be operational the next day at UCT during the prologue so that riders are able to wash before travelling to Robertson.

“Arabella Wine Estate, where we will be staying for three nights, has collected excess water throughout 2017, and which is now stored in fermentation tanks on site. This will be used for the race villages in Arabella and Worcester (stages 1‒3). Wellington and Val de Vie ‒ which hosts the grand finale finish ‒ have a full supply of non-potable water available from boreholes and usage will be measured to ensure the maximum 50 litres per person.”

The Epic has an official water sponsor and this involvement, it is claimed, reduces the requirements of municipal potable water. There are many other minor changes to standard Epic practice but, perhaps most significant among these is the Western Cape Government supplying a dry-bath product in registration packs reportedly capable of helping cut back on 20 litres of usage.

Harrop emphasised that given that rider safety is paramount, there will definitely be enough water at each water point, and a fourth ‘hydro point’ has been introduced to each stage. Water point usage has been calculated at 20 000 litres per day.

Is cancellation possible in view of the crisis? She was emphatic: “The 2018 Cape Epic will not be cancelled: we have contingency plans to source from other areas if there is no municipal water available in host towns.”
Other saving options are being investigated on an ongoing basis, adds Harrop, and, when deemed feasible, will be introduced before the start of the event.
It looks like, then, the big organisers are making sure their water footprint is as small as possible and, in the case of the Cape Town Cycle Tour, negative, with two million litres to be trucked into the city from a non-drought-stricken area to more than compensate for the projected usage of the out-of-town visitors the event attracts. Cape Town needs 125 million litres a day to survive. This gross over-estimate of foreign water use is, ahem, a drop in the ocean.

Should these events – luxury games rather than necessary endeavours – be cancelled, as some would have it? We say not, having found reassurance in the efforts of the organisers we contacted. Because the consequences of cancelling these and other sporting and cultural events would cost us far more than the comparatively small water costs: job losses and dramatically reduced tourist numbers (and spend) would contribute to crippling the region financially, which no good winter will be able to fix. Telling the world Cape Town has shut up shop, when we don’t actually need to, would be a catastrophe.