(I promised a few posts about water, and this is one of them. The point of this series is to make you think about what water means to you, and to motivate you to donate to a worthy watery charity cause, if you possibly can.)
My family has been in South Africa for a very long time, since around the late 1800s on my mother’s side, and the early 1900’s on my father’s side. As such, we’ve experienced a lot of South Africa, since before the inception of apartheid to beyond the end of that tragic legacy. Of course, the most “exciting” (or rather impacting) events for our family took place during apartheid. One of those events revolved around a dam and a waterfall.
Our family owned and lived on property out in the countryside. Of course, when they purchased the land, practically the entire country was all countryside! One piece of property had on it a few dams, some larger than others, and a pretty nice-sized waterfall. My great-grandmother’s property was surrounded by white farmers, either German, Dutch or English in origin. The Germans and the Dutch were particularly…white-oriented…and would do whatever they could to convince her to “sell” her property. The one entity that did not have to “buy” your property was the government. If the South African government came to you and said they want your property for some national purpose (building railroad tracks, train station, highway, park, electric utility), then you signed on the dotted line and handed it over. (Unless you were white, of course, in which case you’d get some amount of payment.)
Being out in the middle of nowhere meant that when electricity and pumped water became widespread human achievements that were supplied by most first-world governments (which South Africa considered itself), the required infrastructure was provided to all citizens. In South Africa, it was different. In the middle of nowhere, the rule of law was government for whites, everyone else for themselves. So, our family had their generators, wired their homes themselves, and drilled water bore holes, and laid down their own water pipes. When the government turned it’s attention to the countryside, my family knew there was no way government-supplied water and electricity would simply and effortlessly be provided to them. What they did not know was the following.
Electricity is powered by water. Everyone knew that. Water, out in the countryside, is a precious commodity. Everyone knew that, too. When the government noticed that our property contained some very nice-sized dams, they decided to set up a local electric utility on this property. So, along they came to my great-grandfather with papers specifying that he is voluntarily handing over a couple of the very large dams and surrounding property to the government “for the national good.” Of course, he did, and the electric plant was set up. Electricity was then piped to every home and shop in the area, 24/7. The only ones to not get the electricity resulting from their own water was our family. Nobody really expected that, although in retrospect it is rather unsurprising. Later, the government decided to build a park around the waterfall on this property. As non-whites, we never set foot on that park, and have no idea if the waterfall is really as glorious as my mother remembers it to have been on hot African summer days.
To you, this might be a story about apartheid. To us, they were realities far bigger than the nebulous, faraway concept of political ideology; these were very real stories simply about water. Because, when you have to fend for yourself, as most people who live in the countryside do, everything is about water. Those dams that you could never access again meant less water in times of drought—less water to feed your farm animals; less water to clean your clothes; less water for your crops; less water available for Friday ablutions; less water for the simple pleasure of merely admiring water falling off a cliff. Less water means you have to build expensive reservoirs to catch and save rainwater, reservoirs which will later crack and need repair. Less water means you will have to dig expensive bore holes, and you’ll never know if you’re digging in the wrong place until you come up dry and have paid for the privilege. Less water sounds like such a simple thing to live with. But having less of it makes life immeasurably less pleasant.
Earlier in the year, I wrote about the UN Water Conference, and the ridiculous question they were addressing, “Is water a human right, or merely a basic human need?” Again, that might seem like a question of simple politics. But it is so much more than political maneuvering to the people who would weep buckets for clean water. Imagine those who don’t have water at all? What do they go through? How do they live?