No end in sight to seven years of drought

Thousands of residents of a small Karoo town in the Eastern Cape draw their water from boreholes while emerging farmers have no water supply.

Covid-19 job losses, a seven-year drought and an unreliable municipal water supply have left the residents of Klipplaat in the Karoo in a desperate situation.

Without food, toilets or clean running water, some residents say they are grateful to be able to line up at a borehole and carry water home in buckets.

The town, which the 2011 census numbered at 3 000 residents, is now estimated to have 9 000 residents. The dam ran dry about two years ago. Until last month, the community relied on one malfunctioning borehole and a limited supply of municipal water that was trucked in daily to a 5 000-litre tank on a dusty square of land in one part of town.

When the Seekoei and Jacobs families of Prins Vale Street in Klipplaat turn on the tap in their yard, it releases a trickle of smelly water that they say is undrinkable. The Seekoeis use it to water a beautiful flower garden at their home instead, the only one in the street.

11 September 2020: The Seekoei family of Prins Vale Street in Klipplaat have used the ‘undrinkable’ municipal water to create the only flower garden in town.

“Life is really not nice here,” says Kowa Seekoei. “Our water stinks like drain water, and it makes us sick. We get diarrhoea. And if you go to the clinic, dan kry jy mos niks (you get nothing),” she says.

Klipplaat residents survive on social grants and casual work on commercial farms. There is no “rich” part of town and some of the working-class residents who have casual work occasionally pay unemployed residents R10 or R20 to wash a basket of laundry. But many of the commercial farms in the area closed their doors to casual workers at the start of lockdown to keep Covid-19 away. 

Those workers no longer have the funds to hire other residents to do their laundry. Residents survived on social grants and two food aid drops from disaster relief organisation Gift of the Givers during the government’s Covid-19 lockdown. 

There are no shops apart from spazas in Klipplaat, and even if the residents had money they would not be able to buy drinking water.

11 September 2020: One of the few spaza shops in Klipplaat. A taxi to the nearest town of Jansenville, 30km away, can easily cost R200.

Clean water, at last

The Seekoei and Jacobs families live about a kilometre from Klipplaat’s Brandovale Primary School, where the Gift of the Givers’ hydrology team repaired a broken borehole.

Jan Seekoei says they will be glad to bring buckets of clean groundwater home from the borehole, even though carrying a heavy load several times a day is tedious, difficult work.

The borehole at Brandovale Primary School was one of three in the town that was either drilled or repaired by the disaster relief organisation, with the hydrology team driving 12 hours from Bethlehem in the Free State.

11 September 2020: Gift of the Givers drilling team member Justice Tsotetsi is a serious man, but even he breaks into a smile when water finally gushes from the borehole at Brandovale Primary School.

Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman says the organisation came to Klipplaat after expanding its work in the Eastern Cape because the provincial government shows “downright disregard” for the people here.

“We hear cries of desperation, the stories of material, physical, emotional trauma, a state of hopelessness and helplessness, unbridled hunger, drought with not a drop to drink, animals dying in their hundreds, unemployment, job losses and Covid-19,” says Sooliman.

“People have resorted to catching tortoises and eating them. Children are starving and people are eating cats and dogs. People call us saying they haven’t eaten for days,” he adds. “How much more will it take for someone in authority not just to take notice but to intervene decisively without months of meetings, discussion, procedures and everything else that takes years and still achieves nothing?” asks Sooliman.

Long-term benefits

The Gift of the Givers’ food aid is meant only as disaster relief, but water projects bring long-term benefits. 

Gift of the Givers hydrologist Gideon Groenewald and his team have a good reputation in the Eastern Cape since drilling boreholes in Makhanda two years ago that yield 800 000 litres of water per day for residents. 

In Klipplaat, they installed new water pressure pumps, a filter that Groenewald designed to remove sulphur from water and purify it, and 15 tanks with a capacity of 5 000 litres each. The borehole at the school yields 60 000 litres of clean, drinkable water per day, enough to supply piped water into all the school bathrooms and a tap outside the school that Groenewald says the community will use as drinking water and to establish vegetable gardens.

Once the organisation installs boreholes, it also maintains them permanently, ensuring that the water does not run dry for lack of maintenance.

Brandovale principal Cedric Jacobs says he had to close the school in the past because it’s 419 pupils could not flush the toilets or wash their hands. “We really try to cope. We harvest rainwater in tanks but it hardly rains. Our challenge is that community members drain this water because they are really struggling. It becomes a serious health issue.”

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The hydrology team is committed to resolving such problems. “Truly, we are doing a wonderful job. We are really helping a lot of people. I have been to all nine provinces assisting people who have no water,” says hydrological technician Justice Tsotetsi.

His colleague, Mphiyakhe Mofokeng, operates the power sources on the drilling rig and controls the hydraulic engines. “I am a third-generation water finder. I travel the country looking for water. Drilling for water is in my family,” he says.

Borehole water is a potentially viable way to supply people living in dry Karoo towns, Groenewald adds. If boreholes are drilled correctly, based on geomagnetic surveys and aerial surveys done by drones, they do not drain the water table. 

11 September 2020: From left, Gift of the Givers hydrology technician Mphiyakhe Mofokeng and hydrologist Gideon Groenewald have drilled for water all over South Africa. They have a success rate of more than 90%.

Intersecting fractures

Groenewald says he spends days before drilling a borehole searching for intersecting fractures in underground rock where water has collected, and which are constantly replenished by each other. He doesn’t only measure the water available in one fracture, but the amount of water that flows into that water from the intersecting fractures.

“Underground fractures that are filled with water were caused by the collisions of continents 250 million years ago. They are less than 3cm wide, but 20km long and 140km deep. There are millions of these fractures,” Groenewald says.

The key to establishing a long-lasting water supply in the Karoo is to space boreholes far apart so that they never “overutilise” the water in a fracture. Some of Groenewald’s boreholes have been yielding water for eight years now, with no signs of depletion.

When asked why the municipalities do not drill more boreholes, Groenewald explains that after putting the job out to tender and paying commercial hydrologists and engineers, it can cost a municipality R1.4 million to establish a borehole capable of supplying a whole town with water. For the same job, it costs Gift of the Givers R90 000 to rehabilitate an old commercial borehole and R450 000 for a new one because they do not pay commercial rates.

11 September 2020: From left, Justice Tsotetsi, technician Moses Mokoena, Brandovale principal Cedric Jacobs, Gideon Groenewald and Mphiyakhe Mofokeng stand in front of the school borehole.

Emerging farms suffer

While the newly repaired boreholes mean that Klipplaat residents have clean water, albeit water that must be carried home from a tap, Black emerging farmers in the area are battling to water their crops. 

“We had boreholes at first but they are running dry. Apart from receiving some donated fodder, we hope for food for our families because we are also hungry and need to feed our own stomachs,” says Armanus Dolph, 61, a former farm worker who became an emerging farmer in his 50s under a land reform programme.

Klaas Brandes, 60, also a former farm worker who became the owner of a 3 000-hectare farm with 300 goats, 250 sheep and 50 cattle, says: “We lost a lot of goats and cattle because as you can see, there is no food or water here.” 

11 September 2020: From left, emerging farmers Armanus Dolph and Klaas Brandes toiled for years as workers on commercial farms before receiving their own farms through a land reform programme just before the seven-year drought hit the area.

In late October, 127 farms in the area were also affected by an outbreak of brown locusts. These are “agricultural pests” that attack crops, according to Eastern Cape Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development entomologist Nolitha Skenjana. But Brandes and Dolph are certain that their farms will survive the drought even though some commercial farms in the area have collapsed. This is partly owing to their decades of experience as farmers and partly because “when there is something wrong, we come together as small farmers”, says Dolph.

“We can survive this drought if we can get our boreholes working again, get some solar panels to power our pumps and use that water to grow lucerne grass, sunflowers and mielies,” adds Brandes. However, he says this will cost tens of thousands of rands, which is money they do not have. 

Government relief has tended to come in the form of fodder, a bale of dried grass that lasts less than a week on farms with as many animals as Brandes and Dolph’s. There appears to be no long-term government plan to support these farms to buy the green energy needed for them to survive droughts and climate change.

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