In many of our country’s provinces, the arid landscape reminds us of the seas of sand of the Namib desert rather than of South Africa’s fertile bread basket (Leon Schreiber, Rapport Weekliks, 6 December 2015). Large parts of our country are suffering from the worst drought in three decades, with five of the northern provinces having been declared as disaster areas. Water levels of all the largest dams are critically low, while the taps in some towns have long since run dry.
The Department of Water and Sanitation’s Weekly State of Reservoirs released in October 2015 said the average reservoir level of dams was 11% lower than at the same time in 2014. Dam levels decrease with an average of 2% per week. While the immediate cause of the current drought can be ascribed to an exceptionally strong El Niño, scientists agree that human-made climate change is the actual reason for the severity of climate disasters. Yes, there have been devastating droughts in the past, but the effect of the current drought is that much worse, because many more people are now dependent on available water resources.
We can all identify with Annemarie Bremner’s editorial letter in ProAgri of November 2015 (translated from Afrikaans): “Statistics on when last it was this dry are communicated daily. The price of maize is averaging around R3 000 per ton at this stage. Planting equipment remains unused. El Niño is having a ball in the ocean, and large parts of the country have had less than 25% of its normal rainfall up to now. It is a struggle to keep livestock herds/flocks going. Nevertheless, we complain loudly about the price of meat. Lettuces, apples and potatoes with little marks are tossed aside, because we are used to only the best and freshest in the shops every day. The reality of food production in South Africa will only be experienced when the price of imported maize products eat away the monthly food budget, and when taps run dry. And then it will be much too late to pray for rain… In the meantime, I turn off the hose when walking from tree to tree on our plot, because those nine metres of wasted water on the ground can save the life of a tomato plant, a cabbage or a mealie. Rain forecasts for 2016 are not promising. Good luck to every farmer who has to make difficult decisions at this time. We can only hope and trust that relief will come”.
Most city dwellers are unaware of the severity of the current drought. Those of us living close to the soil are experiencing the oppressive drought first hand. Many boreholes are running dry, and the Magalies River, as well as the Zwartspruit in Hekpoort, Hartebeestfontein and further down to Skeerpoort, stopped flowing in October already. At only a few places in the river bed, pools of water can still be found. This has a devastating effect on the environment. Lucerne and crops that were planted along the river have perished as nothing can be irrigated. Pecan nut farmers are expecting a small harvest (if any) next season as the flowers on the trees have shrivelled up because of the dry, hot air, even if the trees are being watered. Lawns have died, and even indigenous trees are dying, which also resulted in the fire season being extended until end December.
Plans are being made to supply those whose water resources have dried up with water from tankers (with the help of well-wishers who still have strong water), and to move fish species and otters to deeper pools in the river. (See the article on a very rare fish species in the Magalies River). In the midst of all this, an illegal wall was built in the river and sluices broken down to get hold of water, while some farmers higher up along the river have claimed all available water for themselves. The Department of Water Affairs have known about this state of affairs since 18 October 2015, but has up to now not lifted a finger to rectify the situation. The Steenkoppies Aquifer near Magaliesburg, which supplies water to most of the West Rand, is under severe pressure, and has not supplied water to the Magalies River since 31 December. Therefore, there is a serious shortage of water for sewage purification, resulting in pollution of the remaining water in the river.
The Farmer’s Weekly of 30 October 2015 reported that The National Water Act (Act no 36 of 1998) provides an extremely good basis for managing water availability, but unfortunately the Act has never been implemented.
Deon Greyling’s opinion: The current drought is probably the worst that can be remembered. When an oak tree of more than seventy years old, that had grown well and was healthy before the drought, is now perishing, I realise that previous droughts could not have been this severe. The drought won’t be over soon, and the winter season is lying ahead. The time has come to give serious thought to weather experts’ and researchers’ forecasts.
Months ahead, we knew that we were facing a serious drought. Nevertheless, crops were planted, the Magalies River was pumped dry, and the Steenkoppies Aquifer that supplies water to the river was put under such stress that no water could be supplied to the river by Maloney’s Eye. The natural environment in and along the river is now being destroyed. The crops that were planted are now perishing, and even the pools of water that give life to the fish and help to replenish the underground water, are being pumped dry. Farmers’ boreholes are running dry, with a number being forced to decrease or stop water use, but nevertheless borehole water is being used by some to irrigate lawns with rows of sprayers on the heat of the day, when more than half of that water is lost due to evaporation.
We can agree with the statement that city dwellers are usually not aware of the country’s serious water shortage or that they can’t be bothered by it, but it is sad when people in the rural areas who should know better, cannot exercise control, and can waste water like this. Until such time when the Department of Water Affairs and the municipalities will enforce the Law and also ensure the clean-up of more than half of the country’s severely polluted rivers, and all water users realise the value of clean water and strive towards applying their own water saving measures, the situation won’t normalise. Most probably, we will be unable to survive another drought without famine and starvation. With available, drinkable water decreasing at an alarming rate and the population growing unsustainably, our water resources will simply not be sufficient.