Water Watch

No water, no life

And when the taps run dry?

In a recent article I warned about a looming water crisis facing South Africa, potentially much worse than the current electricity crisis. Since then, I have felt it on my own skin.

It is not until one is really without water that the full implications sink in … a ‘privilege’ my Cape Town suburb was subjected to over the Easter weekend.

South Africa already had too little water and according to experts all of its freshwater resources had already been fully allocated by 2005. Shortages of experienced and qualified engineers and technicians in municipalities and other entities, led to water-related infrastructure giving in at an alarming rate.

We are also polluting what little water we have and climate change and droughts are playing their unwelcome part as experts predict we will run out of water a mere ten years from now. Gauteng is facing this prospect as early as this year.

Since last year there has been an alarming escalation in water supply failures across the country – one of the factors fuelling the current serious escalation of often violent service delivery protests by frustrated communities.

Own experience

Over the Easter weekend this nightmare became my reality and I joined the frustrated ranks of the protesters, even if only in mind and not in action. My ‘hell’ lasted only a day compared to what many of those frustrated communities experience over many days or even week.

I was given a glimpse of a water future that may await us.

During the night of Good Friday I was woken by a horrible gurgling sound emanating from my geyser, followed by a dripping sound. But it was not until daylight that I discovered the cause of this strange noise.

Still half asleep I stumbled to my bathroom and turned on the tap for what is the unquestioned morning ritual for most people – washing one’s face and brushing one’s teeth. The tap, however, only spluttered and coughed with absolutely no water emerging.

There I stood, dumbfounded, with a dry toothbrush covered with toothpaste stuck in my mouth, and denied that one thing we all so easily take for granted – water.

Ah, not to worry! I had bottled water in the refrigerator. Ever tried to wash your face and brush your teeth with refrigerated water?

Not pleasant at all. And, at around R5 to R6 a bottle, your morning ablutions could quickly become a rather expensive affair.

By now suitably awake, I turned on the kettle for some coffee, but it only hissed in angry protest. No water. In went the last bit of bottled water for an expensive cup of coffee made from “pure, untouched natural mineral water”.

I ventured outside to seek the source of this inconvenience and quickly found it. The street was covered in mud and debris – as if disaster or war had struck during the night.

Following the trail to the street corner, it became apparent that a main water pipe, serving several street blocks, had burst, wreaking havoc and destruction. The force of the gushing water had ripped up the entire street-side guest parking area of an apartment block, leaving a huge gaping hole.

Fortunately, it being Cape Town, the gushing water had already been sealed off. By mid-morning a municipal water tanker was parked on the corner to supply residents with emergency water. Many other cities and towns are less fortunate, lacking such quick and efficient action.

A problem, however, it being an area of mostly apartment blocks, very few people, including myself, keep buckets or other large water containers in our flats. Perhaps not insurmountable, but again it could be expensive, especially for those living in the impoverished conditions of un-serviced townships and shanty towns.

But a sobering thought is that for them, it is an expense of survival, for me just one of inconvenience trying to find a water container to buy over the Easter weekend.

As the waterless day proceeded, I was unable to cook, wash the dishes or my hands and make coffee. The basket-load of clothes remained unwashed.

For the irritated cat, I had to go and buy some bottled water to drink.

The awaiting peril

Multiply this situation over several days, a few weeks, or many months and one begins to understand the peril that may await us.

No water means just that: no water, no life.

By now, quite used to and prepared for frequent electricity blackouts caused by Eskom’s load-shedding, I quickly realised that with water it is not that easy to fortify oneself.  

For electricity there is a standby little gas stove with a full gas cylinder, a gas lamp or candles, and braai wood as fallback. There are also multiple alternative sources for electricity – from additional conventional power stations that can be built to even home-based sun and or wind alternatives.

Yet again, without water, the additional power stations become impossible, and for water there is only one source, water itself.

Back to my Easter experience

Luckily for our suburb, by late Saturday morning a standby team of municipal workers arrived and were soon engaged in replacing the burst pipe.

An official on the site told me this has become a frequent occurrence as the city’s ageing water pipes are giving in one after the other, section by section. He showed me the old asbestos water pipe section that burst and was being replaced with a new plastic section.

Our suburb is fairly new. I wonder what the situation is like in the older ones. And, while Cape Town still has experienced and qualified engineers, technicians and skilled workers, many other municipalities across South Africa don’t.

It is another reminder that unless we pre-empt the looming national water crisis, even Cape Town will eventually also stop working.

And it is not just a case of maintaining and replacing crumbling water infrastructure from pipes to pump stations and polluting sewage works, or finding the engineers and technicians to keep it all working.

More importantly, it is about how we use our water, how much of it we use and how we safeguard it from the massive ongoing pollution and leakages plaguing this very scare and vital resource.

I received my wake-up call this past Easter weekend.

by Stef Terblanche

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