ONE by one South Africa’s rural towns have succumbed as a catastrophic drought tightens its grip, turning vast areas into ground zero. Collapsed water infrastructure, theft and corruption have brought the future into the present with a bang.

Residents of the Western Cape town of Beaufort West are all too familiar with the crisis. Already, 20% of the town’s municipal drinking water is recycled sewage. The local dam is at 0% capacity.

Theft of water from outside household taps is rife, with residents able to take a bath only once a week. Guesthouse owners have removed baths from rooms; municipal swimming pool employees now work in libraries.

It has been the first to fall, but it will not be the last. Beaufort West is “ground zero” of the catastrophic drought that has gripped Western Cape.

Its 50,000 residents are relying on a few, still functioning boreholes and the town’s recycled sewerage water to quench their thirsts.

In places, it’s a case of survival of the fittest as neighbours and friends steal water from one another.

The town’s Gamka Dam is completely empty, its cracked bottom parched by the sun. Twenty percent of the municipality-supplied water is recycled sewage.

Municipal swimming pool staff have been forced to find work elsewhere.

Beaufort West is a sobering snapshot of how dire things might quickly become for the rest of South Africa if droughts persist and crumbling water infrastructure collapses further.

Animals are left to fend for themselves on the withered veld, gardens are abandoned and people stroll the streets aimlessly with empty bottles – just in case they spot a tap.

Beaufort West municipal manager Koosie Haarhoff prays for rains and funds to come soon.

“We have 32 boreholes supplying water to people … we hope that, in the nick of time, the rains will come.”

A lack of funding has prevented the municipality from sinking more boreholes.

“Living like this is not right; without water there is nothing here,” says resident Anne Mouries.

She reveals that on the day the town dried up people started stealing water.

“They disconnect water meters and fill up buckets from other people’s taps.”

Pauline Cremon, who lives near a water reservoir, said the worst was waking up to empty taps.

“We have learned to use water sparingly. When the water was cut off for a week, we couldn’t wash ourselves and the washing was piling up.

“I don’t trust the water quality here any more, but we don’t have a choice really. Either you drink or not.”

Evalbea Swart, who owns Cape Karoo Guest House, said: “We’ve stopped tending our garden. We wash our dishes once a day and use minimal water for cleaning.”

Beaufort West residents are not alone.

Lana Mouton, who lives in the North West town of Lichtenburg, said: “Every God-given day is a nightmare. We go without water daily.”

Tshililo Mercy, who lives in Limpopo’s Dopeni, said people were forced to buy water every day from those with boreholes.

Mpumalanga resident Fortunate Katshi said: “We have had water shortages for almost four years now. We bought JoJo tanks and they open the water for us once a week. We are now used to this situation.”

The crisis in rural towns is rapidly encroaching on cities.

Frans Mathabatha, who lives in Randfontein on the West Rand, said: “Every week you will see there is no water.”

In parliament on Wednesday, the Department of Water and Sanitation warned about the inadequacy of water-services infrastructure, revealing an annual R30-billion funding gap.

The Water Research Council’s Jo Burgess said: “We are in trouble, big trouble.”

She said the response to drought warning signs came too late. Even if rainfall was normal, or above normal, it would take three to four years before the aquifers and reservoirs “are back to what we think is normal”.

“We are just going to have to adapt. It’s very frightening.”

Burgess said there was no prospect of a reprieve.

The weather service has predicted below-normal rainfall for the next rain periods.

Borehole specialist Albertus Lombaard said 90% of towns could be fed with ground water to serve basic needs, but it would need to be well managed.

“The more we depend on ground water, the more extraction starts happening. The less we understand the ground water, the more unscrupulous the extraction. If you start extracting water in large volumes and you are not careful you will eventually run out.

“The only backup in South Africa is ground water. That’s your plan B.”

-Times Live.

Photo: Beaufort West Community Pool.