Many regular readers have been flummoxed by my reports of the long-lasting drought in this area; of our taps occasionally running dry; the water supply being switched off at night; and now the town’s water supply frequently being switched off every second day. If you live in an area where it rains often – some of you have even complained about getting too much rain – and where you do not think twice about watering your garden; taking a shower – or even washing your car – simply because the water is always there, then our situation must seem very strange.
Grahamstown has always suffered from a shortage of water and, over the years, various plans have been put into place to bring more water to the town. The original town nestles in a valley but with time the suburbs have crept up the hills on the west and east – and the population has increased several fold. In pre-Covid times we also have a huge influx of university students and scholars who fill the boarding houses of a number of schools.
I have mentioned that we now depend on water from the Orange River that reaches us via the Fish River. Of course it is a lot more complicated than that. Here is an explanatory excerpt from an article that appeared in our local newspaper:
[The] Eastern supply system draws water from the Orange-Fish River Inter Basin Transfer Scheme. This water has a long journey, starting at the Katse Dam in the highland mountains of Lesotho, then down the Orange River which flows into the Gariep Dam in the Free State, from there water is diverted through a long tunnel into the Fish River which is diverted to a weir and another tunnel to the Glen Melville Dam north-east of Grahamstown.
The western supply system relies exclusively on rain falling into catchments above four local dams. Jamieson and Milner Dams, two very small dams (about 12% of the total western supply) at the top of the New Year’s River catchment, are unreliable during drought and can contribute about 1ML/day.
I drive past the Jamieson and Milner dams almost every week. Both dams, next to each other, are situated on the upper reaches of the New Year’s River and would normally have a combined capacity of 830 000m³. When we arrived here thirty three years ago, both dams were filled to the brim and supplied our town with additional water. You wouldn’t recognise Jamieson as a dam in a photograph as you are more likely to mistake it as a hollow between hills. Look at the photograph of Milner Dam below and know that you are looking at the face of a drought and an aspect of a town with a water crisis:
There was an acrid smell in the air and the usually clear blue sky had turned a pale grey. The sweetish notes suggested a grass fire, although no smoke was visible from our garden. That was until we drove to the top of the hill.
A veil of thin grey smoke rising into the air was clearly visible against the blue sky that had been hidden from view further down the hill. Judging from the direction the strong Berg wind was blowing, it was easy to tell why. Once on the N2, we could see the thick smoke billowing on the slope of the Rietberge that overlook town.
The extent of the veld fire was more evident from the 1820 Settler’s Monument.
As the sky darkened, the flames racing through the dry grassland were clearly visible – the choking smoke had now been blown right across town, filling the valley and moving way beyond the town.
It was apparent that the flames had taken hold and were blackening the mountain in a fury; their hungry journey hastened by the strong wind and the dry conditions of the veld.
The fire burned late into the night. We woke to a black mountain that now looms around us as a stark reminder of fires in the past and of how careful we must all be as the veld is tinder dry right now.
I keep harping on about the drought, and with good reason for both Howieson’s Poort and Settler’s Dam have run out of water – leaving our town in dire straits. The very light (and little) rain that has fallen has not been enough to provide the much-needed runoff that will make its way to these vital storage dams. Nonetheless, the rain has made a noticeable difference to the vegetation and has been captured in hollows, such as this aloe leaf in my garden
The aloes now have a beautifully green backdrop that provides shelter for the birds.
Our forested garden is becoming rejuvenated: the Natal Fig is heavy with fruit that attracts African Green Pigeons, Red-winged Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds, Cape White-eyes, Olive Thrushes, and many other birds. The pompon trees are filled with swelling buds that will soon provide a beautiful display of pink flowers – and the Cape Chestnut is already blooming!
Fine droplets of welcome rain cling to the leaves of a canary creeper.
It is a pleasure to sit in the shade outdoors and to enjoy all of this green – last December our garden looked apocalyptically brown and skeletal!
One of the most amazing aspects of indigenous vegetation, be it grass, flowers or trees, is the way even the most hopeless looking environments can bounce back after a little rain. Last summer most of the indigenous trees looked like desiccated spectrals of their former selves. I thought we had lost them … until the first rain of only a few millimetres arrived. Our garden trees – all indigenous – now show an amazing variety of hues of green. Their foliage is thick, buds are swelling and we can look forward to a variety of blossoms. Exotic trees do not have the same tenacity. This Brazilian Pepper tree has shrivelled over the past year, lost its leaves, and has finally given up.
It is one of the trees planted along the street in front of our home. In its heyday it would have looked like this:
All of these trees are stunted thanks to the hard clay soil that is unkind to their roots – and they were never watered, even when planted as tender saplings. It has taken over thirty years for them to reach the height they are, which is relatively short when compared with others planted in more favourable positions in town. While they are not my favourite trees, I have always had an empathy for the way they have had to struggle to survive. It is thus sad to see this one finally succumb to a drought that has lasted too long. It is gradually falling apart:
The description of a particular grassland plant being common on overgrazed range-land made me realise I had hit the jackpot in identifying these canary-yellow flowers growing on a neglected triangle of ground – where the once regularly mowed lawn has long since been replaced by wild grass, on the overgrazed patch of lawn below our house, and along neglected pavements in the suburbs.
The Bulbine narcissifolia is also known as the Strap-leaved Bulbine, doubtless after its loosely twisted, strap-like grey-green leaves. As you can tell from the photograph below, flowers are star-shaped with bearded stamens and mature from the bottom of the inflorescence. The open flowers are pollinated by insects.
The stalks reach up to 500mm, making the flowers conspicuous during their summer flowering season. Fortunately, they are drought tolerant and so bring joy during these dry times!