Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

At the height of the 2015 drought that parched the eastern parts of KwaZulu-Natal, Julie Mkhize had to pull carcasses of dead cows from the dried river bed near her village, after the desperate animals perished seeking water.

Soon people in her rural community were collapsing as well from dehydration, with 10 dying from drought-related illnesses as drinking water ran short, she says.

In the years since, the village has seen water flows recover. But this year they are beginning to shrink again, producing deep-seated fear in KwaMusi, a village of 4,000 more than two hours’ drive north-west of Richard’s Bay.

“Cows, donkeys, goats, children, farmers and families are all competing for the same water,” says Mkhize, a small-scale vegetable farmer, sitting in the shade of a community produce-packing shelter. “We live in fear of the drought every day.”

Around the world, stronger El Niño weather patterns and climate change are bringing harsher and more frequent droughts — and already-dry Southern Africa has been particularly hard hit. Water shortages have killed crops, forced farmers to migrate to look for work, hobbled the hydro-power dams much of the region depends on for electricity, and threatened the region’s rich wildlife as waterholes disappear.

In 2017, Cape Town made headlines as its mayor launched a countdown to a feared “day zero” when taps were expected to run dry — a crisis averted only by the city making an aggressive push to conserve water. But much of the water-scarce country still suffers from poor water management, according to the SA Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

Scientists predict that as temperatures continue to rise with global warming and populations growing, the region will see harsher water shortages — and will need to find clever solutions to ensure there is enough water for all.

With supplies scarce, fights over water are on the rise globally, with water think-tank the Pacific Institute recording a surge in the number of related conflicts from about 16 in the 1990s to about 73 in just the past five years.

Drip by drip

In KwaMusi, a drip irrigation system — funded by the Siyazisiza Trust, a non-profit, food-security group — means Mkhize’s vegetable co-operative, the Siza Bantu Nazareth Garden, can now grow and sell crops even through dry periods. Slim hoses woven through the garden allow river water to slowly drip into plants, minimising losses to evaporation.

Since 2012, KwaZulu-Natal has suffered below-average rainfall, says Phathisa Mfuyo, a spokesperson at the province’s department of agriculture, environment and rural development. But KwaMusi’s hoses have cut the water needed for irrigation and helped the 18 members of the co-operative maintain a steady income of at least R200 per person per day.

Community members also remember how the 2015 drought brought itchy skin, fainting spells and, for some, kidney failure and cholera

That’s a huge improvement from 2015, when “we ate mostly cabbage”, remembers Lucas Thungo, the only male co-operative member. “We couldn’t even eat our staple food of pap because it required using too much water.”

KwaZulu-Natal’s periodic water shortages have sometimes been called a “green drought” because sporadic rains still bring new plant growth. But the province’s rivers — the bigger source of water — are fast being used up, according to a report by the ISS.

“I know it looks beautiful now, but wait until the drought,” Thungo says. “Then all you see are rocks and dust. Everything becomes ugly. Even the relationships between different communities change for the worse.”

‘The next war’

About 120km south of KwaMusi lies the village of Nxamalala, just a few kilometres from the controversial R250m Nkandla homestead of disgraced former president Jacob Zuma.

Residents in Nxamalala say drier conditions are provoking a growing “water war” between adjoining communities.

“Sometimes if you go to a nearby water source, other communities are standing guard at the water. They will beat you if you come near it,” says Talent Zuma (who is not related to the former president). “People say the next war will be over water, but here it feels like it has already begun.”

During the 2015 drought, more than 1,000 chickens raised by Zuma’s farm co-operative died. “Eventually the animals start crying out for water. They will either eventually die from walking far distances searching for water, or we will have to sacrifice them.”

Community members also remember how the 2015 drought brought itchy skin, fainting spells and, for some, kidney failure and cholera.

Sharing water

In many rural villages, limited access to water has resulted in near-daily negotiations about how the little available should be shared and used, and how more might be acquired.

In the drought-parched village of Vuna, talks have led to water being trucked in, bath-water being shared — and plenty of thirsty animals.

The village’s Kuthelani co-operative — the name means “hard work” — sits about 20km north of KwaMusi, accessible only down a narrow walking path of deep red sand.

The four grandmothers who run the co-operative’s 1ha farm plot, hidden amid thorny acacias and imposing mountains, ululate as Brandon Nthianandham, Siyazisiza’s rural community worker, arrives, bearing sugarcane cuttings as a gift.

“This community is probably the most impacted by the drought,” Nthianandham says. But regular flash floods on the nearby Vuna River also wash away trees and soil, he says, pointing to a large downed tree on the river’s banks.

When rain does not come for long periods, Vuna — as with Nkandla — must buy water as both the river and municipal water supply is unreliable, residents say.

“We pay R800 to buy water from a delivery truck in drier months,” says Zikhuphulile Nkosi, the Vuna co-operative chair. “This usually lasts for one month, and then we resort to drinking river water.”

But buying water tends to be a last resort as it is an expense most cannot afford, she says. Instead, the community starts by informally prioritising how limited water supplies will be divided.

“We cherish the government water supply for drinking. For everything else, like bathing, we all move towards the river, which makes it more polluted,” says Nkosi.

In Nkandla, families are also looking hard at how best to use water. “First we must cook. We must feed the children,” says Nomathemba Mashange, head of the Thelumoyaphansi co-operative there. “Then we will use water to bath. Sometimes two to three of us will use the same water. Then this water is used for irrigating the crops. The livestock become our last priority.”

Animals are largely left to fend for themselves, residents say, or slaughtered when they can no longer walk to find water. In dry periods, when rural people drink more river water, they also suffer diarrhea and cholera regularly from the soap, sewage and animal waste washing down from communities upstream.

“We have all had cholera at some point,” Nkosi says. As government-supplied water arrives only irregularly, “we are forced to drink water we know is contaminated”.

Digging deep

Sometimes, even the river runs dry. When that happens, the four grandmothers in Vuna pick up spades and dig into the river bed to reach water trapped deep in the sand, and insert large plastic containers to collect it. A plastic cover keeps livestock away. “Otherwise the goats and cows will come and drink our precious water," Nkosi says.

Community members say the government needs to step up and provide more reliable sources of water, especially as river flows become increasingly unpredictable

Sometimes, the grandmothers stand guard, armed with rocks to scare off approaching animals. “Their hooves push the sand back in, filling the river with sand again,” Nthianandham says.

When the river is deep enough, the women set up a petrol engine beside it and pump water to their crops, which include sweet potatoes that produce good harvests even with little water. The soft sand allows the sweet potatoes to expand, yielding large tubers the women can sell in towns, Nthianandham says.

Dried leaves are put on top of the sweet potato seedlings to create a canopy that traps dew and allows the women to farm with less water.

Other communities are trying more drought-resistant crops. In KwaMusi, the community harvests hardy indigenous beans, maize and sugarcane, grown from seeds saved by community members from previous successful harvests, or provided by Siyazisiza.

Other villages are growing amaranth, bulgur wheat and moringa — a plant that contains anti-inflammatory properties similar to tumeric. Moringa seed — ground with a processing machine — is sold to nearby clinics as a healing supplement for patients.

“These small farming changes mean the community will have something to eat and sell when water becomes more scarce,” Nthianandham says.

More wells, more dams

Across rural KwaZulu-Natal, efforts to adapt to drier conditions are evident, from the new JoJo tanks to hold rainwater running off tin roofs to more irrigation pumps and hoses.

For many communities, these innovations are also making life easier, particularly for women. Before receiving irrigation pumps from Siyazisiza, the women in Vuna carried buckets of water to fields up to 15 times a day. The pump has let them channel their time and the additional water into growing produce and income.

But they fear there is a limit to how much they can adapt to a drier climate if water shortages keep worsening.

“We are hard workers,” Nkosi says. “But even if we work hard and plant to full capacity, it will be a waste. The water shortage will mean the death of our produce eventually.”

Community members say the government needs to step up and provide more reliable sources of water, especially as river flows become increasingly unpredictable. “We need boreholes. We need more dams. We need taps,” Mkhize says.

According to departmental spokesperson Mfuyo, the government is working on new water access, and currently deciding on projects for the 2019/2020 financial year. But villagers remain sceptical that help is on the way.

In February, SA media reported that more than R220m of national government funds designated for drought relief was missing. A further R120m was granted.

An investigation into the missing funds is underway, the department of co-operative governance told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, though a spokesperson said the department believes less money is missing than was reported.

Dealing with worsening water scarcity will require SA to collectively put “the shoulder to the wheel to find solutions”, such as rainwater harvesting and recycling water, says Sputnik Ratau, a department of water and sanitation spokesperson.

Kevin Winter, an environmental scientist at UCT, says the government needs to take strong measures to manage ever-more limited water supplies, and ensure water-related infrastructure works reliably.

“Sadly, when water is provided free in rural areas, it doesn’t get properly serviced. What we desperately need is investments in new forms of governance to address matters of water supply and also water quality,” Winter says.

Ensuring there is enough water to go around in a drier future will require greater vigilance from everyone, says Lucas Thungo, a community farm worker. “We need people in power to monitor water usage — both their own and ours. The 2015 drought was one word: devastating. We simply cannot go through that again.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation