The day the town ran dry
On the outskirts of Beaufort West on Thursday, two men jumped for joy and relief after a large fountain of water shot high up in the air as a borehole drill hit clean water 40 metres below the surface.
It was a week after the town’s main water source, the Gamka Dam, finally ran dry.
The two men who stood next to the gushing water were not residents of the Western Cape Karoo town, but Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder of disaster relief organisation Gift of the Givers, and Gideon Groenewald, the hydrologist, geologist and palaeontologist whom he roped in to help.
Beaufort West, one of five Western Cape towns worst hit by the drought, is now totally dependent on underground water. The municipality supplements the town’s supply with recycled sewage water.
After the dam ran dry, the town with a population of just more than 34 000 was left with one megalitre of surface water less each day.
The drought is clear for all to see in the town, which is overlooked by a majestic ridge of mountains and covered in earth so parched that even the dwarf shrubs have died.
Race against time
As Beaufort West edged ever closer to Day Zero – the day that the taps would run dry – the provincial government approached Sooliman and his disaster relief organisation to help.
Groenewald, who has 40 years’ experience in the search for water, was called in to lead the project, which is expected to reduce the agony caused by the drought in the sheep-farming town.
Groenewald said they were racing against time to ensure that there was enough water emanating from boreholes to make up for the 1 million litres a day the town had been pumping out of the Gamka Dam.
Groenewald said that, although there were about 32 existing boreholes around the town that were augmenting its water supply, not all of them were yielding enough water needed to address the shortfall left by the dry dam.
And now, even the groundwater is starting to run out.
Groenewald’s main concern is that the existing boreholes are not deep enough and underground water levels are running low. “The reality is that the aquifer [an underground layer of water-bearing rock] has dropped by 20 metres to 40 metres, which means we are now required to drill deeper to get to the water,” he said.
Groenewald added that it would take many times more than the average rainfall in the area for the water table to recover.
“If it doesn’t rain six times as much by the end of April 2018, the groundwater levels could drop by up to 60 metres,” he said.
“We do not want things to get to that point, so we need to use the little we have sparingly.”
Sooliman said Gift of the Givers had set aside R6 million for the borehole project in Beaufort West.
“Drilling commenced on November 1, and thus far, we have drilled 11 boreholes – of which four were collectively offering 350 000 litres of water a day. The aim is to continue drilling until the required minimum amount of 1 million litres a day is achieved to balance the shortfall,” he said.
“We may go beyond that, but we have to ensure that there is a balance between providing water and ensuring that the aquifers are not depleted in the process.”
Beaufort West’s townsfolk seem to know that they have to save water, but many are unaware of how serious the water shortages are.
Resident Nicho Marais appeared oblivious of the crisis surrounding him. His main concern was that the water flow in his taps had slowed to a trickle.
“They have shut down the water pressure to get residents to spare it. I know there are problems with water supply, but I am thankful that the taps are still running, even with low pressure,” he said.
Another resident, Patrick van Wyk, who works at a filling station in the town, said he had recently heard that the dam had run dry.
“I have also seen some water-drilling trucks at work around here. With the dam empty, it will leave us in big trouble if it does not rain and the water is depleted underground,” he said.
“The other thing is that the community is not well informed of a crisis, if there is any. All I know is that we need to use water sparingly.”
Western Cape local government spokesperson James-Brent Styan said the drought situation in the province was “very serious”.
He said the provincial government had allocated funds for drought relief, including the drilling of boreholes and providing fodder relief for farmers. He said the province had been drilling a number of boreholes around the Western Cape in the past three years, adding: “We need more funding from national government ... we remain in talks with them.”
Although he was unable to provide information and figures about what the provincial government was doing in Beaufort West to alleviate the water crisis, Styan condemned reports that the area had hit Day Zero, saying: “There is still lots of underground water in Beaufort West.”
Asked if the provincial government had seen the current water crisis situation coming, he said: “We can only work on predictions ... we were informed of average rainfall that did not happen. This is a terrible drought.”