Cars whizz by on the R72 as people wait anxiously in line to fill their buckets with fresh water from the Fairview spring in Makhanda (Grahamstown). The natural spring has provided fresh water for residents since the 1860s when British engineers constructed a pipe making the water available for human use. As the Eastern Cape sinks deeper into drought, the spring is some residents’ only reprieve.
Monday afternoon, 14 January, beads of sweat lined the brows of residents queued for the cool fresh water. The line of containers stretched from the water’s spout to the small parking area. Frustrated residents told Grocott’s Mail they had been waiting between two and three hours.
Lulama France, a teacher at Sidbury Primary School, lives in Makhanda with her young daughter. “Since yesterday we didn’t have water,” she said. “[We] didn’t know anything, didn’t hear anything about whether the water is going to be closed for how long.”
Due to a pipe burst on Saturday evening, residents were without water for two days. “We have to come here to fetch water, there’s nothing else you can do,” she said.
After waiting for over an hour, France’s containers still had a long way to go until they were filled.
“There’s a queue every day!” she emphasised. “Even early in the morning you will find many people here.
“They must give us water. You cannot do anything without water,” she said. “Even in schools the children are going to get infections because we don’t have anything, I don’t know about hospitals. How are they going to deal with the situation? It’s really bad,” said France.
The trickle of water coming from what was once a powerful gushing stream has residents concerned. Rumours of farmers siphoning off water for their own private use, and fears of the spring running dry add to the tension.
According to local environmentalist Nikki Kohly, chances of the spring running dry are unlikely but not impossible. “I guess it depends how long and bad the drought is,” she said. “But as far as I know, it has never stopped flowing.”
Kohly stated that rumours of farmers stealing water were not realistic, “Unless they dig up the original pipe.” The water flowing downstream from the spring could be redirected, she said.
“The mountain above the spring is commonage, and is part of the proposed Oldenburgia Conservancy. It is vital that this area is not farmed, in order to prevent pollution of this clean spring water.”
Though water was restored to residents by 15 January, low reservoir levels continue to leave residents in high lying areas dry. On 16 January the municpality urged residents to refrain from filling their tanks, as this prevented others from having any water at all.
With municipal water supply running critically low and dam levels continuing to drop, residents’ best hope is for much-needed rain.