Around lunchtime on December the 22nd, a veldfire ignited near the parking lot in Suiderstrand. With the southeaster blowing hard, the fire quickly spread and within half an hour, one building was completely destroyed. If it weren’t for the quick reactions of the Working On Fire helicopter from Bredasdorp, it could have been a lot, lot worse.
We weren’t down here then, as we were spending Christmas with family in Cape Town, and it took a while before the panicky messages on the whatsapp groups – in Afrikaans, nogal – began to make sense and I finally worked out that our place was not in immediate danger. It was a horrible few minutes. The point of ignition was only 100m from our front door, and had the fire started 24 hours before, it would have been blown directly towards our place.
The wind has been pumping since we arrived down here, and it was only yesterday morning that I managed to get the drone up to survey the scene from above and see just how lucky some houses were to escape serious harm.
There are plenty of melted gutters and lots of damaged paintwork, but nothing that can’t be repaired after the festive break. Not so much for the burnt-out home though. It’s a sad and sobering sight.
If one is looking for positives – and at this time of year, one should always have a glass half full – it was that this was the only casualty, and that no-one was injured or killed in the fire.
The village reacted well, with plenty of people on hand to assist where possible and great communication. And we’ve all renewed our knowledge of evacuation procedures and emergency numbers, which is never a bad thing.
More rain today in Cape Town. To be honest, we could all do with some summer now, but any complaints are tempered by the still very fresh memories of the recent drought.
Our dams are now up to 84.5% full, an incredible recovery from the time of that visit to Theewaterskloof just 20 months ago. Amazingly, Theewaterskloof itself cracked the 75% milestone this week. With all this good news, it would be reasonable to think that we were all in the clear now. And Cape Town pretty much is: for the moment at least.
It’s a different story just up the road though. I drove out to Montagu this week, where there hasn’t been any significant rainfall in 4 years. Much of the local economy is reliant on farming, and farming is reliant on water.
There is no water.
It’s hardly rocket surgery to work out implications of this situation. If farms can’t farm, there’s no money to spend locally, there’s no money to employ workers. Thus GDP drops, unemployment rises, poverty rises and brings with it increased drug/alcohol use, and with that, increased crime and health problems.
I was lucky enough to visit the Poortjieskloof Dam on the (currently misnamed) Grootrivier. Poortjieskloof supplies several of the farms in the area and has a capacity of 9.4million m³. That’s about one third the size of the Steenbras Upper dam that you drive over at the top of Sir Lowry’s Pass. i.e. it’s big.
It’s also almost completely empty.
The water that you can see there is little more than a metre deep, well below even the bottom of three outlet points on the dam wall. When full, it should be 33m deep, but even the lowest of the depth markers (4m) on the bank is way above the water level. It’s a shocking sight, and a reminder that we live in an urban-orientated, insular news bubble. While we are celebrating our deliverance from the infamous Day Zero, this dam – literally just 100km from Theewaterskloof – is on its last legs, along with the local community which depends so heavily upon it.
While I do understand that the climate is changing, I’m also aware that that is what climates do, and the amount of hype in the media leaves me cold. I’ve seen enough good science being manipulated to sell papers and get website clicks to just willingly believe everything I read. However, that said, if one takes this as an example of the implications of prolonged drought and its effect on a small community, extrapolation to a city the size of Cape Town is frankly terrifying. Whether or not you think that there is any anthropogenic effect on the climate is almost immaterial. The fact is that we’re clearly unable to deal with any robust change in our environment.
However, it’s not all bad news in this particular case. While I was visiting one of the local farms, their 170m deep borehole was completed and yielded its first water, which will hopefully at least allow them to save their trees in preparation for next year’s crop. This year has been a write off. Add the cost of drilling and pumping from a borehole onto a season with literally no income and you can see the desperate state that things are in.
I’m looking forward to going back and seeing healthier farms, a healthier local economy and happier faces next year. As for Poortjieskloof – that will require literally years and years of above average rainfall to get back to any significant level. And that seems very unlikely to happen at this stage.
They mention the fact that Parliament is a National Key Point (although the photo is not taken over Parliament). They mention the fact that the pilot is flying over a crowd (not good practice, because a kilo of drone falling from the sky is going to sting a bit, minimum). They also point out that there was a NOTAM (NOtice To AirMen) (did you just assume my gender?) (let’s not go there) in force because of the World Economic Forum meeting at the CTICC.
I hadn’t considered that one, but it’s probably the most serious of the alleged infringements.
The reason I didn’t really go much further with my thoughts about the photo was twofold: firstly, that (as with every other aspect of life here) no-one cares about the laws and they’re never enforced anyway, and secondly, that I genuinely thought it must have been taken by a professional operating from a helicopter, because (to my eye at least), it seems to have been taken from well above the 120m ceiling allowed for drones. And yes, I know that’s just another law to ignore, but if I was a news person (which was who I had assumed had taken it) and I wanted this shot, I’d have used a chopper, not a drone.
It’s more bad press for drones and it’s going to highlight the lack of sensible admin around flying them. We have yet another dysfunctional government body to blame for that one, together with a misleading media. For example, this line:
Drone pilots have long complained that the SACAA is not issuing pilot licences fast enough. With an application process that can take up to three years… only an estimated 1% of those who operate drones in South Africa are doing so legally.
…is confusing. You don’t need a licence to fly a drone if you are a hobbyist. Whatever the guy who took this photo is guilty of, it’s wrong to assume that he needed a licence to fly his drone (although a little common sense may have been beneficial).
It’s Pi Day, (because it’s the 14th March, or 14/3, or 3.14 in the American notation). This is clearly not the South African way of doing things. However, on this occasion, I’m willing to overlook this US-based nonsense in the name of education. The school has based an entire Maths Week around today – “It’s all about Maths and Fun” (so clearly not big on Venn diagrams, then) – and it’s been an excellent learning experience for all the kids.
I was asked to help out today with ‘togging one of the events: namely a Pi on the field, made up of all the classes in the keystage, and I was only too happy to help. Here’s one of the lower altitude photos I took:
Obviously, I used the drone: my tripod wouldn’t extend to the required height for even this relatively low level shot.
The students were very patient (although the process really didn’t take very long, thanks to some fantastic organisation), but this is one of those things that won’t mean anything to them until they see the photos, which is why I hurried through the editing as soon as I got home and got them back to the teachers in time for them to see what they were part of today.
Tomorrow: Maths Week Dress Up Day!
Also tomorrow for those wondering: March’s 6000 miles… crossword.