We live in one of the more water scarce parts of South Africa and in a region that is drought-prone. Water scarcity and drought are nothing new to The Husband and I. He grew up and farmed in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). Water and farming? Cattle must drink and eat. One of his responsiblities on the ranch included the management and maintenance of his section’s boreholes, pumps and reservoirs. In addition to the thousands of kilometres of fence and the thousands of head of cattle.
Me? My understanding of the water issue is, shall we say, a little closer to home. I must have been about eight or nine – 1972 or 3 – and drought struck Grahamstown (now Makhanda) with severe water restrictions. A couple of things happened: my father transformed the annual plantings in the botanical gardens he ran, from thirsty, to not-so-thirsty plants – in those parts of the gardens not already planted with hardy annuals and indigenous flora. I encountered ornamental cabbages (kale) for the first time. It will forever bring back memories of that very dry patch in my then very short life.
The necessary digression about the Dad’s work is because it did give us an alternative supply of water. From the Douglas dam. This water was reticulated through the entire botanical garden and into our garden. The house in which we lived “belonged” to the botanical gardens and we literally went through the back gate and into them.
Although this water was brown and not fit for human consumption, we could use it for bathing and flushing toilets. And we did. Dad rigged up a large black pipe which snaked through the bathroom window. It had an on/off valve with what seemed like a very large red
wheel handle. The house had one bathroom (and four bedrooms which is another story) and no shower. For a while, and mercifully, it was summer, we washed and cleaned ourselves in plastic bowls. A practice still used by people where there is no running water and which remains all too common in this country and other parts of the world.
When we moved to McGregor, we knew that we were moving to a village in a rain shadow, and where water was scarce. The first couple of years that we lived here, rain and water were abundant.
The garden, which was rather like a desert when we arrived, needed both water and TLC. Lulled into a false sense of security, it got both.
Developing a vegetable patch was a not-negotiable and, for reasons not relevant now, there was a hiccough before we settled on the ultimate location and laid it out. When it finally happened, about eight months after we moved in, it was prolific.
For an effective three years, we could not water the garden.
It was soul destroying.
What goes up must come down, or vice versa, right?
The Husband, as I keep on saying, ranched. The section which he managed was also the regional weather station so recording rainfall and the daily minimum and maximum temperatures was part of the job. The Dad’s job required the same. My mother wrote the data on the back of her cigarette box. In her office, she transferred them on to graph paper plastered on her office walls. This background, coupled with my degree in Geography meant that a rudimentary weather station would happen at The Sandbag House. Eventually. It was “complete” with the installation of the rain gauge in 2013. The Husband’s diligence and excellent spreadsheets show some interesting trends. Recording began about half way through 2013, and although it was a wet year, it wasn’t as wet as 2012 when I had virtually lived in my wellies.
Then the rain stopped. For all intents and purposes. We live in a Mediterranean climate with rain, theoretically, delivered during our winter (mid-year). However, there is the odd thunderstorm which is accompanied by really heavy downpours that can dump over 100 mm of water on the village in a couple of hours. These episodes are not always useful because the water runs away, taking top soil with it. All of that said, and even though there’s been more rain this year, and the drought has broken, the trend is downwards.
What is even more interesting is the increase in the number of days when the maximum temperature is 30°C or higher. Also an upward trend.
Looking at these figures – hardly scientific – and considering them in conjunction with what the United Nations and other authorities are saying about climate change, our figures simply reflect the world trend. Drought and ongoing water scarcity will become a fact of life.
Long term sustenance
When we started 2019, we entered the third year of drought. Our garden had returned to its 2011 dust bowl status. Although we did manage to grow chillies and tomatoes, Swiss chard and the odd lettuce, we had to buy in most of our vegetables. Winter crops like beans were easier, but the brassicas (broccoli and cauliflower), not so much. The garden was not nearly as productive as it had been.
I felt as desolate as the garden.
That, though, is its own story (in a few episodes) which will follow in the next few months.
A last look at 2019
Perhaps it’s apt that my last post of 2019 is one of hope: water is life and as long as there is life there is hope. Reflecting on the last three years, they have been difficult. Not just because of the drought, but because of decisions I had to take. There have been reluctant new approaches and new beginnings. This year has seen some settling and consolidation. For the first time in a few, the blank canvas of a new year has a certain appeal.
There are a few green shoots – not just in the garden as it now begins to flourish. Again.
Until next time
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
I first published this on 22 December 2019, but because of what I explain here, I’ve had to re-claim it from one of the other platforms on which it was posted at the time.
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