On World Water Day we should take a minute or two to appreciate this valuable resource. Water is the lifeblood that ensures the survival of all living creatures on Earth and without which humankind simply could not exist. Yet, it is a resource that so many of us take for granted.
Many communities around the world, and sometimes even entire countries, do not have access to clean water. In some cases, even access to untreated water is a challenge, and the hardships these communities face in their struggle for survival is commendable. Sometimes even countries that do have good water infrastructure in place have difficulties meeting the water demands of their consumers for a variety of reasons, often resulting in disrupted supply, usually during times of peak demand — typically the height of summer.
For our colleague, Jenny, who lives in the rural hamlet of Rietkuil (a suburb of Suurbraak) located roughly halfway between Swellendam and Heidelberg in the Western Cape, South Africa, the challenges of obtaining a reliable supply of water recently hit a little too close to home.
Rietkuil was originally a large tract of farmland that has since been subdivided into 150 smallholdings, many of which are still undeveloped. Residents of this growing community consist of horse owners; small scale farmers who farm poultry, pigs, sheep, cattle, olives and/or vegetables; homesteaders seeking an off-grid lifestyle; or a mixture of the above. This community does receive a limited allocation of treated water for household use, but this does not come without regular interruptions in supply, often leaving the community high and dry, having to rally around to fend for themselves in an effort to keep their animals and crops alive.
Jenny and her community received treated water from Overberg Water via a pipeline that runs from Heidelberg to a community water connection point located alongside the national road. From here, the pressure must be sufficient enough for the water to get to the first set of community water storage tanks that are located at a higher point than the Overberg Water connection point. Water from this first set of storage tanks gravity feeds down to three more sets of storage tanks which service the various smallholders.
In South Africa, where many communities do not have access to safe drinking water, Jenny consider's herself one of the lucky ones. However, ageing infrastructure, combined with regular power outages due to load-shedding (typically for two hours at a time, sometimes twice a day) wreak havoc with this supply. Because the water treatment plant only have one generator and supply several areas on different water pipelines, there is effectively no backup when the power goes out. During a power outage, the water treatment plant can't treat the water or pump water to the holding reservoir that gravity feeds to the line supplying the neighbouring sheep and cattle farmers and ultimately the connection point that supplies the Rietkuil community. Consequently, when the water in the system is used up it is not replaced until the pumps are activated again. And then the demand typically far exceeds the capacity to supply, compounding the situation further. Due to constant fluctuations in water pressure, exacerbated by a surge in demand by farmers along the line when supply is restored, there are frequent pipe bursts along the main supply line, which further disrupt supply.
The Rietkuil community faces the same problem every summer, usually over December/January. This year has been particularly bad, extending from December through to March (the hottest driest months of the year) and is still ongoing. Jenny, like many others in her community have resorted to installing a backup water storage tank as well as rainwater tanks on her property. But these are expensive and many residents simply don't have the financial means to do this. There is also a limit to how long stored water will last before the tanks need to be topped up. As this is a winter rainfall area, rainwater tanks will only be replenished during the wet season and backup tanks can only be refilled when the supply is restored.
Competition for water during these trying times has also taken its toll on community relationships, as things can get quite heated when you have to cart untreated river water in at great expense or carry buckets of water for days, weeks and months on end, not knowing when it will flow consistently from your tap again. Every member of this community faces their own personal struggles when water supply is disrupted, no matter whether its the olive farmer trying to prevent his trees from dying, livestock farmers trying to water their animals, or homesteaders just trying to meet their daily water needs.
Jenny, who lives with her elderly mother, has a menagerie of animals she cares for, including four horses of her own, plus another four horses belonging to two separate neighbours who live and work in Cape Town, that she looks after in their absence. "Carrying water to your own horse's water trough is back-breaking enough; carrying water over some distance to neighbouring properties can start to get just a tad tedious after weeks and months on end," says Jenny, who has truly learnt to appreciate the value of water as a result of her own water woes.
As we reflect on the value of water on World Water Day, one thing is certain, "Once you carry your own water, you will learn the value of every drop" — African proverb.
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