Giving back

Many of us in Cape Town are trying our hardest to save water and adhere to the 50 litres per person per day limit imposed by the city council, and that’s to be applauded. But there is one family going above and beyond to help avert “Day Zero” when the city is set to become the first major developed city to run out of water.

This is their story.

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Etienne van der Merwe wakes up each morning at 5:30am.

“I don’t need an alarm,” he tells me, “I’ve always been the sort of person that likes to get up and go.”

Etienne and his family, wife Hentie, and children Johan (18) and Charlize (15), live in a small but comfortable house in Durbanville in Cape Town’s Northern Suburbs. As I arrive, I note the dying plants and brown lawn. Like the rest of the population, the van der Merwes have been affected by the water crisis which is currently gripping the city. Three years of low rainfall, coupled with an alleged lack of foresight by the authorities have left Cape Town teetering on the brink of disaster.

“It’s been very difficult,” says Etienne. “But we are very fortunate to have access to clean running water anyway. There are many in our country who would consider this a luxury. I want to try to give something back.”

And that’s exactly what Etienne and his family are doing.

Each Monday morning, before sunrise, the taps in the van der Merwe household are turned on, and a total of 1400 litres  – 50 litres per person per day – is decanted into a collection of containers and drums in the kitchen and porch, before Etienne sends his son outside to turn off the water main again.

“This is more than enough water to get us through the week,” explains Hentie. “We wash with a skoppie en waslap [a basin and face cloth], we share the water, we flush the toilet once a day using rainwater when there is any, or greywater [water that they have used for washing] the rest of the time. It’s hard work, you need to be disciplined, but for some people, this is everyday life. We can manage.”

“Since we started this routine, we’ve never run out,” Etienne tells me proudly. “There’s always some left over at the end of the week.”

Etienne and Hentie van der Merwe

Many of the city’s residents are equally active in their efforts to save water, but it’s what the van der Merwes do each Sunday evening that makes their efforts so special. I join them on what has become a weekly pilgrimage.

It’s 4 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, and the van der Merwes have just returned from the afternoon service at their local church.

“It’s important that we keep faith, that we believe God will right this situation,” says Etienne. “People’s livelihoods and our society depend on it.”

He’s in the kitchen, moving the empty pans, pots, bottles and drums to one side.

“See here. This week we have almost 80 litres remaining this week. This is what we are giving back.”

I help him and Johan lift two full 25 litre containers and a collection of old soft drink bottles into the back of their bakkie [a pick-up or ute], and climb in. Hentie insists that I sit up front with Etienne, while she sits with her children in the back. Etienne pulls out onto the suburban road outside their house and heads for the freeway. We’re bound for Theewaterskloof, the largest dam in the region with a capacity of almost 500 billion litres, set in the mountains about 100km [63 miles] north-east of Cape Town.

The traffic is light, but Etienne’s pick-up has seen better days and the drive takes us  over an hour. We stop just outside the farming village of Villiersdorp on a viaduct over the reservoir. The view is shocking: what used to be a picturesque body of water is now little more than a stream surrounded by sand. The viaduct is made up of 12 arches. Only the centre arches now straddle the water. The strong wind whips up the dust from the extended banks of the dam, forcing us to shield our eyes.

The Theewaterskloof Dam bridge

The family stares grimly at the scene for a few moments.
“Each time we come here, there’s less water and more sand,” Charlize remarks, sadly.

Etienne and his son are dragging the containers out from the back of the truck, and between them, they lift the first one onto the concrete barrier on the side of the bridge, remove the cap and begin to pour the water back into the reservoir below.
It’s not an easy task, and the wind blows spray back into our faces and onto the road, but Etienne and Johan persevere and most of the contents of the container end up in the water below.

“It’s not much,” he admits, “but it’s something. If everyone in Cape Town could come and pour some water back into the reservoir, it would fill it back up. It would make a really big difference. I’ve already started to promote the idea in my local community, but people don’t take this situation seriously. They laugh at me and they say it’s a waste of time and effort. But I believe that we need to work together. This is my contribution.”

Having poured the family’s excess water back into the Theewaterskloof Dam, we head back to the van der Merwe home, where I bid farewell to this extraordinary family who are going to extraordinary lengths to save their community.

Later, sitting in my hotel room in the city centre, I resolve to do my bit as well by not having my usual cup of tea before bed.
And I have to say, it feels good to be making a difference, and suddenly I understand just how the van der Merwes must feel every day.

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Story originally posted in UK Community Values magazine (January 2018).
Author: David Brooks.
Reproduced in full for the benefit of my South African readers. 

We went to Theewaterskloof

Theewaterskloof being the biggest dam supplying Cape Town with water.
And we weren’t alone. Because Drought Tourism is a thing.

Some TWK stats for you from Wikipedia:
Total capacity: 480 406 000 m³
(for lovers of comparisons, that’s about 15 times the size of Ladybower Reservoir in the UK)
Catchment area: 500 km²
Surface area: 5 059 ha

Of course, that’s what it should be like. It’s not like that at the moment.

Theewaterskloof is divided quite neatly into 2 halves by the R321 bridge.

Most of my photos (link below) were taken from near the red dot (just left of centre) on the map above. Those of the dam wall and associated infrastructure were taken near the green dot (bottom right).

And while there is still some water in the Eastern (lower) half, the Western (upper) half is one big – very big – sandpit. Of course, we knew this before we headed out there, but it was still a wholly shocking sight and nothing (including my photos, I fully admit) prepares you for – or allows you to grasp – the sheer scale of what you’re confronted with.

What you’re looking at here is the only water in the “top” half of the dam. The water is about 100m wide at its widest point, and that sounds ok, until you realise that the far side of the dam is over 5km away. Aside from that 100m strip, it’s all just sand. And laterally, there’s almost another 6km to the left that should also be covered in water. But there’s none. Nothing at all.

And everywhere you look, dead trees. Usually they’d be submerged, but they’re high, dry and seemingly petrified. It’s weird: very disconcerting, yet also strangely beautiful.
It’s like every photo you’ve seen from the Namibian Tourist Board.

I’m not going to be like that “vlogger” and tell you how much water we’re “losing” through the outflow from the dam wall, and how the coffee and chocolate farmers of the region are “stealing” “Cape Town’s water”.
I’m not going to ask you how much water you’re using: if you’re in Cape Town, you should know that already, and if you’re not in Cape Town, then it really doesn’t matter to me.
And I’m not expecting my photos or words to effect any change in anyone. If you’re not panicking even just a little bit by now, too few blue pixels on a computer screen aren’t going to make any difference to you.

But even for a realist like me, it was a very sobering sight.

On a more practical note, photography was incredibly difficult. The light was completely overwhelming, there was nowhere high nearby to get a decent vantage point, and what should have been water is now just a wide open space with no landmarks to get any sort of scale or perspective.
Even the Mavic up at 120m struggled to take it all in. No wonder NASA used a satellite.

Theewaterskloof is very, very big, and it’s very, very empty.
Consequently, it’s my humble opinion that we should all be very, very worried.

Photos on Flickr here. Video to follow.
And hey, if you’re the guy who chatted to me on the dam wall this afternoon and asked where he could see my drone photos, you made it. Welcome!

Dam Mischief

I was a bit naughty yesterday, but I’m not sorry. Everyone should be a bit naughty every now and again. I’m not advocating murder or anything. Nothing illegal. Just a bit of mischief, which harms no-one and which keeps your heart young.

As ever with a big news story in the modern era, everyone wants to be the first to share the latest developments and fresh angles. There’s a certain gratification to be found in being the one to tell your friends about the breaking news you have just read. They didn’t know. You informed them. You’re the man (or woman). Noddy badge of honour time.

The water crisis is dominating the news here at the moment, as it has monotonously for several months now. There are no new angles anymore. Even Helen Zille’s tweets are only generating transient, short-lived outrage.

Still, when I put out this tweet yesterday, I was rather surprised when people quickly shared it.

Several people remarked on it and shared it, often with a sad emoji, because it clearly doesn’t look like a major reservoir feeding a city of 4 million people should.

Of course, that’s because it’s actually a picture of Mars.

This composite image looking toward the higher regions of Mount Sharp was taken on September 9, 2015, by NASA’s Curiosity rover. In the foreground — about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the rover — is a long ridge teeming with hematite, an iron oxide. Just beyond is an undulating plain rich in clay minerals. And just beyond that are a multitude of rounded buttes, all high in sulfate minerals.

So, no. This isn’t Theewaterskloof dam “from the Villiersdorp road”. It’s another planet about 55 million kilometres away.

Still, there are some similarities:

The changing mineralogy in these layers of Mount Sharp suggests a changing environment in early Mars, though all involve exposure to water billions of years ago. Further back in the image are striking, light-toned cliffs in rock that may have formed in drier times and now is heavily eroded by winds.

This was never meant to be a social experiment. I lobbed it up there as a bit of a joke. Perhaps naively, I expected everyone to see it exactly for what it was. Instead, there were only a couple of engagements which suggested that*. The remainder simply clicked the Retweet button apparently without even thinking.

I’ve learned something from this, but I suspect I might be just about alone in that.

 

* One of them was from Jonathan Meyer**
** He’s very anxious for me to point that out to you

How bad is the drought?

I meant to blog this when I saw it, but I needed to go to the beach and relax, so I didn’t get around to it. Still, no harm in sharing it now, because even looking back, I think it’s very telling as to the perilous state of our water supply.

We’re now well into fire season and when they are not fighting fires, our local agencies are working overtime on social media, keeping us informed and trying to stop people from starting fires in the first place. Thank you. Keep up the good work.

Here’s a post from the Overberg Fire Protection Association from the 31st December 2017.

Various reports of smoke have been received from 09:00 this morning. We can confirm that no #wildfires have been reported and area confirmed is safe. #Thanku for your vigilance, Overberg District Municipality Fire and Rescue and the #goFPA members that made sure our area is safe. The phone calls to assist with our efforts (mostly made by members from the beach!), the private plane that could give info and worried officials offering assistance!

All of which seems to be good news, but if no fire, then why the smoke? Because we all know that “there’s no smoke without fire“.

Here’s the image (by devfloat) that accompanied the post:

But that’s not smoke. That’s dust, but not just dust from anywhere:

#Overberg #Theewaterskloof area 31/12/17 11:30
No ongoing #wildfires, dust from the Theewaterskloof dam is the cause of concern.

Yes, people thought there was a fire in the area because there was dust blowing around from the local dam. The one that would usually be full of water and supplying it to Cape Town.
Not only is it not full of water and not supplying it to Cape Town, the dam is so dry that its surface is blowing around and making people think the valley is on fire.

I know that this is not “news”, but if anyone out there needs a sign that we are in a seriously dire situation, then this is surely it.

And yet only a third of us are following the city’s recommendations:

We are utterly buggered. And we only have ourselves the other 66% to blame.

Good news, bad news

GOOD NEWS!
As of 0600 this morning (it’s Friday today, for those wondering), the Theewaterskloof dam has 5,476,628,400,000 more litres of water in it than its low point on Tuesday at 1200.

BAD NEWS!
That only equates to its volume being 1.14% up on earlier in the week.
Current level = 14.05%*.

 

And therein lies the message that there’s a long, LONG way to go yet till we’re out of this mess, folks. Keep saving water!

* Obviously, there will still be inflows that haven’t reached the dam yet, so this figure will rise a bit.