“The health of our waters is the principle measure of how we live on the land.” – Luna Leopold
As a horticulturalist, naturalist and a first generation South African I value access to fresh water above most other things. Water is the life blood of this planet, it is not only one of the principal factors in shaping a landscape but is also one of mans most scarce resources and here in South Africa it is getting scarcer.
I could tell you that the lack of rain in 2017 has been declared a local disaster in terms of Section 55 of the Disaster Management Act or that by the 8th of May 2017 levels had dropped to less than 23% in the Theewaterskloof dam or that it was estimated that there were 88 days of water left by this time. But these are figures and numbers that, while terrifying, will never fully hit home, so let me rather tell you what I saw with my own eyes: the weekend we decided to explore an empty dam.
As we drove into Villiersdorp there were twisters of dust popping up all over the landscape filling the air with a fine, clay dust that seemed to dry the back of the throat as smoke does. The air had a dryness to it too but to my surprise the vegetation did not. Fynbos perfectly adapted to a harsh environment of hot summers and dry cracked soils, carried on with their lives as if nothing at all was out of the ordinary. But as we got closer I saw it, what had become of the huge man-made body of water that I had become so fond of, the dam had become a desert. The consequences of human greed rather than human need were suddenly exceptionally clear and I was hit with a wave of despair.
It’s May, I thought to myself, Autumn for goodness sake and this is how little water we have, I don’t know how we are going to make it through the year. But melancholy soon turned to curiosity as we drove across this foreign landscape, littered with remnants of the past that had long been covered by water.
Sandbanks were now hills, water was now desert and the history of the landscape, complete with old farm houses and vineyards, started to come to life. I couldn’t believe my eyes, nothing had been removed just knocked down low enough for boats to sail over and so the past had been so magically, uniquely preserved.
We came across a myriad of old foundations that had once supported farm houses. Forgotten car parts and anchors littered the place, who knows if they were there before the dam’s creation flooded the land or if they were in fact dumped by unconscious citizens of the area.
The most fascinating of all however, were all the historic dams that had been flooded over since 1978, that were now the only oases in a vast desert of dry clay and sand. It was as if these little dams had been restored to their former glory and were regifted their value after years of living obsolete under metres of water. A feeling of nostalgia that was not my own filled my chest and pulled me deep into thought of a forgotten people and a forgotten life that I had never experienced and yet had a great desire to return to.
The entire experience was surreal, my emotions were all over the place, one moment in awe of the history and hidden treasures, the next I was filled with a huge sense of dread for the future. We as humans take until there is nothing left for mother earth to give us and seeing this so clearly through the desert that was once a dam filled me with despair. We have had water restrictions and water saving campaigns for most of my life here in Cape Town but yet we still waste without realising we are only shooting ourselves in the foot. Something needs to change, we need empathy for the planet that gives us life, because she is us and we are her, there is no separation.
Light and love, Jen