The great thirst: water crisis paralyses rural towns

13 November 2017 - 05:02 By PETRU SAAL and Kyle Cowan

One by one South Africa's rural towns have succumbed as a catastrophic drought tightens its grip, turning vast areas into ground zero.

Collapsed water infrastructure, theft and corruption have brought the future into the present with a bang.

With South Africa experiencing a water deficit of 38 billion cubic metres annually, and needing an additional R30-billion a year to bridge the gap in water services infrastructure, the situation is a daily living nightmare for thousands of people. The country's emergency Plan B - underground water reservoirs - is in danger of rapidly evaporating.

Residents of the Western Cape town of Beaufort West are all too familiar with the crisis. Already, 20% of the town's municipal drinking water is recycled sewage. The local dam is at 0% capacity.

Theft of water from outside household taps is rife, with residents able to take a bath only once a week. Guesthouse owners have removed baths from rooms; municipal swimming pool employees now work in libraries.

Errol van der Horst in the empty swimming pool in Bird Street on November 08, 2017. It is one of three community pools that will be closed for the summer because of the drought in Beaufort West.
Errol van der Horst in the empty swimming pool in Bird Street on November 08, 2017. It is one of three community pools that will be closed for the summer because of the drought in Beaufort West.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

Beaufort West residents are not alone.

Lana Mouton, who lives in the North West town of Lichtenburg, said: "Every God-given day is a nightmare. We go without water daily."

Tshililo Mercy, who lives in Limpopo's Dopeni, said people were forced to buy water every day from those with boreholes.

Mpumalanga resident Fortunate Katshi said: "We have had water shortages for almost four years now. We bought JoJo tanks and they open the water for us once a week. We are now used to this situation."

The crisis in rural towns is rapidly encroaching on cities.

Frans Mathabatha, who lives in Randfontein on the West Rand, said: "Every week you will see there is no water."

In parliament on Wednesday, the Department of Water and Sanitation warned about the inadequacy of water-services infrastructure, revealing an annual R30-billion funding gap.

The Water Research Council's Jo Burgess said: "We are in trouble, big trouble."

She said the response to drought warning signs came too late. Even if rainfall was normal, or above normal, it would take three to four years before the aquifers and reservoirs "are back to what we think is normal".

"We are just going to have to adapt. It's very frightening."

Students of Boland College walk to residents in Hillside in Beaufort West after buying water on November 07, 2017.
Students of Boland College walk to residents in Hillside in Beaufort West after buying water on November 07, 2017.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

Burgess said not only was South Africa getting less rain annually, but the rainfall periods were fewer and shorter. One solution was to capture rain water, which now simply drains away.

"Historically, we have designed our cities to drain themselves really quickly and to get the water into the rivers and out to sea so we don't have flooding.

"What we haven't done is trap that storm water for use during dry periods. We need to completely rethink the way we behave with storm and flood water harvesting and water management."

Burgess said there was no prospect of a reprieve.

 Farmer Anton Smit appeals to a higher power for  rain with drivers at a  Beaufort West truck stop on November 08, 2017.
Farmer Anton Smit appeals to a higher power for rain with drivers at a Beaufort West truck stop on November 08, 2017.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

The weather service has predicted below-normal rainfall for the next rain periods.

Borehole specialist Albertus Lombaard said 90% of towns could be fed with ground water to serve basic needs, but it would need to be well managed.

"The more we depend on ground water, the more extraction starts happening. The less we understand the ground water, the more unscrupulous the extraction. If you start extracting water in large volumes and you are not careful you will eventually run out.

"The only backup in South Africa is ground water. That's your plan B."

Gamka Dam in the drought-stricken Beaufort West on November 08, 2017.
Gamka Dam in the drought-stricken Beaufort West on November 08, 2017.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

The Karoo town that ran dry

It has been the first to fall, but it will not be the last. Beaufort West is "ground zero" of the catastrophic drought that has gripped Western Cape.

Its 50,000 residents are relying on a few, still functioning boreholes and the town's recycled sewerage water to quench their thirsts.

In places, it's a case of survival of the fittest as neighbours and friends steal water from one another.

The town's Gamka Dam is completely empty, its cracked bottom parched by the sun. Twenty percent of the municipality-supplied water is recycled sewage.

Dead fish lay in the cracked mud in the now dry bed that is the Gamka Dam in Beaufort West in November 08, 2017.
Dead fish lay in the cracked mud in the now dry bed that is the Gamka Dam in Beaufort West in November 08, 2017.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

Municipal swimming pool staff have been forced to find work elsewhere.

Beaufort West is a sobering snapshot of how dire things might quickly become for the rest of South Africa if droughts persist and crumbling water infrastructure collapses further.

Animals are left to fend for themselves on the withered veld, gardens are abandoned and people stroll the streets aimlessly with empty bottles - just in case they spot a tap.

Sheep graze on dry grasses at a drought-stricken farm 30km outside Beaufort West on November 07, 2017.
Sheep graze on dry grasses at a drought-stricken farm 30km outside Beaufort West on November 07, 2017.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

Beaufort West municipal manager Koosie Haarhoff prays for rains and funds to come soon.

"We have 32 boreholes supplying water to people ... we hope that, in the nick of time, the rains will come."

A lack of funding has prevented the municipality from sinking more boreholes.

"Living like this is not right; without water there is nothing here," says resident Anne Mouries.

She reveals that on the day the town dried up people started stealing water.

"They disconnect water meters and fill up buckets from other people's taps."

Ann Mouries, 57, of Hillside fills her bottles with water because she fears Beaufort West will soon run out of water. Pictured here 8 November 2017.
Ann Mouries, 57, of Hillside fills her bottles with water because she fears Beaufort West will soon run out of water. Pictured here 8 November 2017.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

Pauline Cremon, who lives near a water reservoir, said the worst was waking up to empty taps.

"We have learned to use water sparingly. When the water was cut off for a week, we couldn't wash ourselves and the washing was piling up.

"I don't trust the water quality here any more, but we don't have a choice really. Either you drink or not."

Evalbea Swart, who owns Cape Karoo Guest House, said: "We've stopped tending our garden. We wash our dishes once a day and use minimal water for cleaning."

Melvina Adams and Michelle Fink of Hillside do their washing in a bucket in Beaufort West on November 08, 2017.
Melvina Adams and Michelle Fink of Hillside do their washing in a bucket in Beaufort West on November 08, 2017.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
People of Beaufort West welcome the farmers of Mpumalanga who organised a mass convoy to deliver 1500 animal feed bales to the drought-stricken Karoo town on November 08, 2017.
People of Beaufort West welcome the farmers of Mpumalanga who organised a mass convoy to deliver 1500 animal feed bales to the drought-stricken Karoo town on November 08, 2017.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

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