We need to rethink our attitude to water in these frightening times

Fetching water from a spring is a great leveller, especially in South Africa, writes Helen Moffett

22 March 2020 - 00:00 By Helen Moffett
'Environmentalists have been telling us for decades that the attitude of the middle classes - that water is cheap, easily available and infinite - imperils us all'.
'Environmentalists have been telling us for decades that the attitude of the middle classes - that water is cheap, easily available and infinite - imperils us all'.
Image: 123RF/Sawitree Pamee

I pour myself a glass of water from the bottle in the fridge. I like the slight mineral tang. It's flat from being boiled and cooled before drinking but I can add luxuries like ice and lemon.

My water does not come from a tap. It comes, often, from my neighbour's well. This is sunk deep enough that the water that emerges is clear, no reddish stain proclaiming iron content. It's been tested for harmful metals and the chemical profile is excellent, especially for those needing protection against osteoporosis. But there's no telling what biological contaminants may be present: hence the boiling.

Harvesting it takes teamwork: my neighbour has to connect a series of hoses, then switch on his pump. This means that collecting water has to be timed to fit around load-shedding. I'm ready on the other side of the fence, my containers cleaned and sterilised, at least the ones I plan on storing water for drinking in.

This sounds like a lot of electricity and sterilising, but one thing I've learnt is how little of the water we consume is for drinking. Most of mine goes on washing, bathing, flushing and cleaning. Yet our municipalities have inherited a system where all water to the home is treated so that it's potable; the enormous waste of resources involved is one reason I went off the grid 26 months ago.

Water harvesting is a strange combination of physical labour ("You live like a medieval peasant," says my sister) and modern tech: my neighbour has an App on his phone that switches his pump on and off, and I WhatsApp him to let him know when to hit it. I collect 300l to 400l every few weeks, and it feels like largesse.

SWEET WATERS

But sometimes my water comes from the local Newlands spring next to the now-empty swimming pool. Council workers keep a close eye as we stand in line for the tap's gushing, cool, clear water: we are allowed to collect no more than 25l at a time. After that, we have to take our brimming bottles back to our cars, fetch more containers and join the queue once again.

The last time I was there a couple with a huge bakkie were laboriously filling over 100 5l bottles this way. This water still has to be boiled, but I don't always bother: these are the "sweet waters" of Camissa, a gift seeping from the rocks of Table Mountain.

This is another legacy of our history: never do I feel so much of a 'white madam' as when folk help me lug water to my car

Fetching water from a spring is a great leveller, especially in South Africa. I queue with young and old, black and white, even poor and rich - the tannie with the luxury four-by-four has old-fashioned diamonds set in her rings.

People are wearing headscarves, overalls, shorts, work clothes, uniforms. The council workers keep us moving briskly, so there's not much time to chat, but people are pleasant and co-operative. I slip and drop one of my full containers and two men immediately come to my aid.

This is another legacy of our history: never do I feel so much of a "white madam" as when folk help me lug water to my car - the luxury that makes this form of water collection possible. I think of the thousands in Makhanda and Phuthaditjhaba and many other overlooked municipalities who carry their water home by minibus taxi or on foot.

In these times of isolation enforced by a virus holding the world to ransom, I'll give up collecting water from springs for a while, but then, unlike many, I have options. Not only is there the Well of the Sainted Neighbours; I have a much-loved and hard-won rain tank.

Renting a home on an "eco-estate", it took 10 months to get permission to install one - in the middle of the Cape's most ferocious drought. I don't drink this water because the roof tiles produce a gritty black residue, and the gutters are full of scuffling pigeons; but this is a wonderful back-up for washing up, laundry and bathing. This water is soft on my skin and hair.

So I know where the water in my glass comes from. I know that even the well water is a precious resource, not to be wasted; not just because of the sheer schlep of filling containers and hauling them around, but because the underground river that bisects this valley is itself a finite and threatened resource, especially as greedy developers eye what's left of the local wetland in the hope of building yet more cookie-cutter homes with en-suite bathrooms.

My relationship with water is a comfortable version of the one shared by the majority of the world's population: for them, water takes labour, often back-breaking, to haul, clean and store. According to Africa Check, less than half (46.4%) of South Africa's population has water piped into their homes.

NO CHEAP WATER

International environmental photographer Brent Stirton believes that the sheer labour involved in sourcing water is the single greatest barrier to women's equality worldwide; the utterly essential work of hauling water, storing it, and then searching for fuel to boil it is gendered. It occupies an enormous amount of women's time and energy each day, derailing educational and other opportunities.

Water researchers and environmentalists have been telling us for decades that the attitude of the middle classes - that water is cheap, easily available and infinite - imperils us all

None of these facts are new. Water researchers and environmentalists have been telling us for decades that the attitude of the middle classes - that water is cheap, easily available and infinite - imperils us all.

This especially applies in times of crisis. With the injunction to wash our hands religiously to slow the spread of the coronavirus has come the reminder that many citizens do not have easy access to running water.

On Facebook, radio commentator Eusebius McKaiser writes: "Washing your hands for 20 seconds does NOT mean let[ting] the tap run for 20 seconds. Please close the tap as soon as you've lathered your hands. Open it [again] only when rinsing. REMEMBER - water does NOT 'come from a tap'. It is a resource that is under enormous pressure in South Africa and many communities do not have access to it. Do not be selfish. Your future is interconnected with fellow citizens."

KINDNESS OF NEIGHBOURS

I was eight years old and living on a Little Karoo farm when our borehole ran dry during a drought. A local farmer; a complete stranger, ran a pipe across a mile of land to supply us and our thirsty animals. And here I am, come full circle, still reliant on the kindness of neighbours for the most basic essence of all.

I try to make our relationship at least a little reciprocal, supplying them with home-made food. My decision - and I had the luxury of choice - to go off the municipal water grid has taught me about the need for interconnection; how vital community is. These are excellent lessons in these frightening times.


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