In hot water: Prince Albert

On the dirt road to Meiringspoort

On the dirt road to Meiringspoort

Never before had I seen a pool like it. It has a rope strung along the edge, so kids who can't swim can haul themselves out, and barbed wire around the perimeter. The security fencing is a sometimes futile attempt to prevent children from gaining access in the first place. The pool is in Prince Albert, a village where a refreshing dip could provide respite from summer temperatures of up to 40 degrees centigrade, it is also part of the village's sewage treatment works.  When kids can get passed the guard they get to cool off with a swim in partially treated sewage water. There is no alternative municipal swimming facility. The low-quality homes on the poor side of town become stiflingly hot in summer. They are serviced by stand-pipes and therefore lack proper washing facilities, so there's an understandable demand for a pool. 

The 8,000 square kilometre municipality in which Prince Albert is the main settlement has a tiny population of just over 13,000, although that's 25% more people than a decade ago. Perhaps because the population is so small, relative to most South African towns, and because Prince Albert is cut off from the rest of the country's water system, it provides an easy to understand case study of water supply and demand. Retired botanist and co-owner of local biodiversity business Renu-Karoo, Sue Milton-Dean, told me about some of the local demands on water.

Sue drove me along some stunning dirt roads to Meiringspoort, a nearby gorge, highlighting examples of intensified agricultural practices on our way. Overhead watering of lucerne is one wasteful use, with much water evaporating or being caught in the wind. Adjacent to the lucerne fields are crowded ostrich pens. Sometimes the ostrich, which produce tonnes of manure, are almost adjacent to or above watercourses and so if not properly dealt with their dung has the potential to seriously impact rivers. However, it's not just farming that places a claim on water. We also discussed tourism which has provided Prince Albert with an economic boost. City types, like me, seeking a rural escape are heavy water users as our sheets and towels are washed after just a couple of nights and we like the well hosed gardens which give the town its oasis-like appearance in its semi-desert environment. There have even been proposals for a golf course. It's hard to think of a more water guzzling and incongruous land use in this setting. Water demands are many and various.

Ostrich on a farm near Meiringspoort

Ostrich on a farm near Meiringspoort

Every drop of Prince Albert's water is provided by the Dorps River, which flows from the Swartberg mountains which loom grandly over the village. The Dorps River is no longer perennial, as it once was, and only flows after winter snow or very heavy rainfall. For most of the year all the surface water is used. The windmills which pump ground water must now pump from deeper depths. If things continue on this trajectory demand for water will exceed supply. Figures date back to 1888 and show there's been no material change in rainfall (in other words "supply") since then. There's clearly been an increase in demand from both Prince Albert's population growth and all the consumption points Sue highlighted. 

I asked Sue what likely conceivable next steps could be. She explained that one obvious source of water was properly processed water from the sewage works. At the moment the sewage works are woefully unfit for purpose as they were not designed for a village with a population the current size of Prince Albert. Making matters worse, the unclean overflow from the sewage works runs onto the adjacent Wolwekraal Nature Reserve. The significance of Wolwekraal lies in its desert adapted plants which require a dry environment, so it's one area of Prince Albert which needs less water. Sue explained "the water overflow also causes naturally occurring salt to rise, which is killing the indigenous vegetation." 

The pool at the sewage works, with the Swartberg mountains behind

The pool at the sewage works, with the Swartberg mountains behind

Another imaginable step would be restricting or ending the right of villagers to use the leivore, (meaning "leading furrows") the tiny canals running through the village from which households take water. It would cause problems for gardeners and also be a shame from a historical and cultural point of view as they form part of the character of Prince Albert. Sue added a final alternative that "we could divert another mountain stream but then…" she tailed off, the obvious point being there are no easy implication-free solutions.  

As human populations increase and lifestyles are enhanced demands on resources grow. Water is vital in and around Prince Albert, as everywhere else and is essential for every job in farming, tourism and otherwise. Sometimes families' priorities are urgent, they need homes properly served by water and somewhere for their kids to cool off without the risk of them contracting diseases. This all means that people who want to improve housing in poor communities, people who want to conserve the Karoo's unique vegetation and Prince Albert's historic leivore as well as those who fancy a round of golf in the semi-desert Karoo all have something in common. Their concerns are all harder to manage with more people consuming more. In many ways population growth remains a taboo despite it being at the heart of an incredible array of issues. In addition to our personal management of water needing to become more responsible it should be accepted that with a finite amount of water in Prince Albert and everywhere else that all water issues become very much harder to manage with larger populations and increased consumption. Prince Albert just shows this in a very marked way. What must increase quickly is the amount these issues are discussed to start to change mindsets and policies. Any changes this will bring about will take time and become effective long after Prince Albert has run out of water.

A second article on Prince Albert relating to fracking and land restoration will follow in a few days. Click here to like the Facebook page to make sure you don't miss it.