Of water, relief and hope

The Sandveld is a harsh mistress. When conditions are right, she can deliver an agricultural bounty beyond your wildest dreams, but that occurs seldom these days.

In times like these, the fields with all their expensive irrigation equipment lie fallow, and the keening wind drives the topsoil in stinging sheets when it blows.

There was a time, when the limiting factor in crop production around here, was the cost of fertiliser, but with cheaper oil, those days are gone.

The new limiting factor is availability of water. Talk to the farmers, may of whom have lived here all their lives, and their disquiet is palpable.

At the northern extremity of the Sandveld, hard by Elands Bay, lies the Verlorenvlei, a stygian-depth natural body of water fed almost entirely by the Sandveld Aquifer, an immense body of groundwater of not-clearly-understood magnitude.

It is this groundwater that is the literal lifeblood of the Sandveld farmers, but its reliability is now in question. A casual visitor to the area may well see the frighteningly low level of the Verlorenvlei as little more than seasonal, but to the regular visitor, it is a source of disquiet.

“I’ve not seen the Verlorenvlei even close to this low since 1988,” says Danie Truter, as we survey the parched sand belt which separates us from the now distant waters edge.

But there is more that is worrying, Danie tells me.

The ground around the Verlorenvlei is subsiding, a clear indication that water is being withdrawn from the aquifer which feeds it, far more quickly than it can be replaced.

This close to the sea, it bodes ill for the long-term future: as pressure in the aquifer drops, ingress of water from the sea is almost guaranteed, if the crippling drought which has the area in an iron grip, does not break soon.

And there is precedent to support this perspective: the Jeffarah Aquifer on the Libyan coastal plain, overdrawn for years by the the late Muamar Gaddafi’s vision to turn it into a verdant farmland, is increasingly saline, as the thousands of wells sunk to collect groundwater in massive quantities, plunder the ancient aquifer faster than it can be replenished. It seldom rains in the Sahara.

On the farm on top of the mountain above Aurora, the dams are all dry, save one, now at its lowest level since Danie settled here, just over three years ago.

The natural lie of the land causes water to drain into a shallow valley, which runs from the top dam, all the way down what amounts to an elongated wetland, interspersed with man-made dams.

The little oak tree shaded dam near the majestic “rietdak” farmhouse, which perennially yielded a rich crop of “waterblommetjies”, is now just parched sand.

The dam lower down, where I’ve sometimes seen Cape clawless otters, is also bone dry.

Where, I wonder, are the otters now? And the lowest dam, usually of considerable size, and also a source of waterblommetjies, is also bone dry.

If water still flows down the shallow valley, it is deep underground.

Danie’s herd of Nguni cattle drink at the shrunken top dam, and also at the water troughs at various points on the farm, but those water troughs are all supplied with water pumped from a single borehole, 30 metres deep, near the main dam.

Where else, one wonders, do the baboons, steenbokke, fallow deer, duikers and other wildlife which frequent the mountain top, drink?

But nature in its munificence eventually intervenes. As night draws darkness over the land, the clouds roll in, and just before the sun sets, we see that we are literally in the clouds.

In the night the rain stealthily falls, and for the first time in a long time, the rain gauge registers.

By the time the Easter weekend draws to a close, fully 23 millimetres of rain have fallen, bringing new hope to this parched land. The countryside, now washed clean of drought-dust, dazzles the eye, and new growth begins to emerge. I write:

The Drought Lifts

The great grey grumpy cloud,

sits upon the thirsty mountain.

Damp chill coolness, blessed relief,

after an eternity of parching heat.

“Thank you,” says the mountain,

tears running down its grey cheeks.

“you’re welcome,” says the cloud,

lifting its skirts and scurrying away.