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In some of South Africa’s water-stressed urban areas, water tanks have become an almost standard feature of suburban homes. While in deep rural areas, where piped water supply is not a given, people travel long distances to collect their daily water. However, this is about to change for four communities in the grasslands, who have received a special Covid-19 relief ‘care package’.
Like a Highveld storm that quietly builds up in the giant cumulonimbus clouds and then pours down with ferocity, the Covid-19 pandemic hit hard and fast. With the government’s basic hygiene messages of washing our hands regularly to prevent its spread, the assumption was that all citizens have the means to do so.
For rural communities living in the high-altitude grasslands of southern Mpumalanga and northern KwaZulu-Natal, access to water was already an issue. Here, and in many rural parts of South Africa, fetching water is a daily event. Walking with a 20-litre bucket must take its toll – and time.
I left Cape Town Airport in an early-morning mist and arrived in Joburg in a warm haze. Collected by a Joburg-based teammate, we drove east towards Mpumalanga to visit some colleagues and see some WWF project sites in the grasslands. It wasn’t long before we were amidst rolling beige fields with the odd few cows and sheep. Unlike the fynbos of the Western Cape (though largely fragmented by the cultivated wheat, barley and canola), the Mpumalanga natural landscapes we passed through were grasslands with the occasional field of stalks from a harvested maize crop.
We were headed to our stayover base in Wakkerstroom, a small town that is a popular spot for tourists and twitchers to see the bird life of the Wakkerstroom wetland reserve and the surrounding grasslands. Beyond the abundance of birds, what struck me about the area was its abundance of water. Our guesthouse was on the Wakkerstroom River which also feeds the town’s dam.
Early the next morning, my WWF colleagues and I were standing under a big cloud-filled sky in a beautiful part of the country that I grew up knowing as ‘the veld’ – a vast open expanse of gentle grass-covered hills dotted with the occasional picturesque circular hut. This is cattle country. But it is also water country.
These natural grasslands are the water-carrying landscapes for a large portion of South Africa’s strategic water source areas – the 10% of our land that provides half of our country’s surface water. It is fairly close to the Drakensberg Mountains which form part of the Great Escarpment to the east – the country’s summer rainfall regions.
South Africa’s strategic water source areas are a foundational focus of WWF’s work, and in the grasslands WWF has a dedicated programme to work with willing rural land reform communities to support them in enabling sustainable livelihoods and committing to stewardship agreements to maintain the pristine biodiversity.
It was October and already the Highveld summer thunderstorms had started.
We were visiting these remote grasslands as part of an HSBC-funded delivery of a special kind. A total of 73 water tanks – as part of a Covid-19 relief project co-ordinated by WWF – were handed over to four rural communities that WWF works with as part of the land reform and biodiversity stewardship programme in the grasslands.
As a city girl who enjoys a daily hot shower, life in the deep rural grasslands of South Africa is as foreign to me as watching a film in another language, without subtitles. Realising that the first place we visited didn’t have a communal tap was beyond foreign to me.
The first community was Thekwane in northern KwaZulu-Natal, a good 30-minute drive on gravel roads from Wakkerstroom. On arrival, an oversized delivery awaited: 25 water tanks on the back of a massive double truck trailer.
In city suburbs, a water tank is as common a sighting as a red-wing starling or a hadeda, but in this remote landscape you could spot them a mile away and count them on one hand.
In a country where access to water is a constitutional right, the reality for many is life without piped or tapped water and walking long distances to fetch and carry water from rivers, springs or dams.
The Thekwane community has 85 households under the wise leadership of a female head, iNkosi Shabalala. With 25 new water tanks handed over, this is almost a tank for every three households. My colleague Ayanda Cele, who works closely with these communities, told us that it is mostly the women who fetch the water each day, walking to a spring half an hour away at best or for over an hour to a nearby dam that feeds one of the big coal power stations. But no water is piped to the people who live here. And during the water tank handover ceremony, the iNkosi shared how she had not been able to have a bath that morning because she had no water.
After the event, another WWF colleague – Nkazi – shared iNkosi Shabalala’s happiness at receiving these water tanks because she said they’d had no access to water and had been sending requests to different departments – with no luck.
In the afternoon we visited another site in southern Mpumalanga where two communities joined for a handover – Bambanani, home to 20 households, and Ukuthanda Ukukhanya, home to 13 households.
Mr Mnisi, from Bambanani community, highlighted that the tanks give them the freedom to wash their hands. He shared how they previously had a challenge because they had to prioritise cooking and other domestic uses over hygienic practises to save water.
As sometimes happens, especially when travelling long distances, plans don’t always work to schedule. Alas the delivery truck for the fourth round of water tank deliveries was stalled. The delivery and handover to the Ndlamlenze community in northern KwaZulu-Natal was delayed. Two of us unfortunately had to head back to Johannesburg and so we didn’t get to go there.
Before our drive west, back to Gauteng, our local grasslands-based colleagues – Angus and Ayanda – took us on a scenic drive to see the Pongola valley – a water-rich region which is part of the Enkangala Drakensberg Water Source Area. Here, Ayanda explained that the 123 households in Ndlamlenze mostly get their water from rivers and wetlands. In summer they often can’t go out of the community due to muddy roads and overflowing bridges as they live at the source of the Pongola River.
The contrast of our guesthouse’s water-centric location and our community visits was an up-close reminder of the inequality in our country. I thought about the people who live in remote areas without tapped water and those who make municipal infrastructure and service delivery decisions in their comfortable, water-plumbed city offices with bathrooms and toilets.
Life in these rural high-altitude areas is hard amidst a lack of basic services combined with harsh conditions of extreme temperatures, from blazing hot summers to below zero winters.
Covid-19 was the perfect storm in South Africa – a rare combination of circumstances that aggravated an already dire situation. As the Covid storm continues and hopefully soon passes, so the rain-bringing summer storms start in the inland grasslands of South Africa and these now empty water tanks will soon be filled up to provide some basic relief for a few hundred people. For a while. Then we hope that the municipality will have set up a programme to deliver water in the dry months to ensure these water tanks carry out their intended purpose to provide water to those who need it. In turn, by removing less water from the nearby wetlands and rivers will also mean that the local biodiversity in the area – from the grass to the frogs – will be restored or improved.
Explore more of our work with willing rural land reform communities, the custodians of these life-giving landscapes.