Water, liquid gold or limitless commodity?

Congratulations to the powers that be for finally erecting banners in Plett informing the public that water is a scarce commodity and needs to be used wisely. Water is a finite resource, and the notion that if we haven’t enough to continue on our present path of development, unless we extract more from our primary source, the Keurbooms, should not be our first knee-jerk reaction. Our present path of development is a debate we shall refrain from exploring here. It is just like the recent focus on energy worldwide: first become more efficient with what you have, as it is ultimately essential, and even in the short term quite smart from a financial perspective as well as from an environmental angle.

The often punted misconception that we can’t tell the affluent property owners of Plett that they must provide their own rain water tanks for garden irrigation, because a) they will not accept this, and b) they will go elsewhere, or c) they can’t be bothered, has less relevance than the lack of service delivery at municipal level, and the new municipal loans which we cannot even afford to service. Increasing expenditure of funds we don’t have, as opposed to phasing in a greener way of utilizing our capped resources, seems to suggest a “more of the same / business as usual” approach rather than considering a more enlightened and appropriate solution.

Rain in Plett should bring a sense of relief to us, but I feel quite anxious as I sit and listen to the rain falling, but have difficulty in hearing it as it is drowned out by the hiss and splutter of automated irrigation systems coming on. There are clearly two standards here: locals must endure water restrictions, while our out-of-town chommies squirt out as much of the precious liquid as they like. We must not under any circumstances offend them! This is something that must be phased out, and before anyone can even start to talk to me about spending more of our rates and taxes on sourcing more water, it’s got to happen.

Let’s assume that you are given the task of quantifying the appropriate amount and quality of water to be made available to all people on this earth for sustainable living, with the further assumption that it is a finite resource, and that the most valuable/expensive water is natural, pure water or treated water. Let’s also assume for our narrow purposes that there is no norm in terms of how we utilize water. Logically, the first thing we consider is differentiating between the different uses of H2O, because it is not necessary to treat water we use for watering our garden or growing food crops, washing down the paving, washing our cars etc., that’s a waste of money, right? So our departure point for determining how much treated water we need is based on those uses which require treated water. The luxury of watering a garden (that’s right, I said LUXURY), using our most valuable water is unjustifiable, given the preceding logic, and the serious drought which we are currently experiencing.

There is more and more emphasis on going green, and contrary to popular belief, it is becoming quite fashionable, albeit fundamental to our survival (you know, fashion first, survival later). Some thought about it will reveal that we can in fact market this attribute of our town, actually enhancing the desirability of living here. If we are going to sustain Plett and the unique experience that it offers, then we have no choice, but to do the right thing environmentally, as once we have spoilt it completely, the affluent property owners of our town won’t want to be here anyway.

We can begin slowly by introducing our ratepayers to the concept of compulsory rain water tanks for garden irrigation and eventually a complete ban on municipal water for watering gardens. The main tool for marketing it is by illustrating the longer term financial and environmental benefits, and then by phasing it in over a period of say three years. A monthly allocation of the household budget for tanks and a pump where required, over a three year period rather than a once-off purchase, will lessen the burden of budgeting for the equipment, and can be offset against the increase in rates required to implement the extraction of more water from the Keurbooms and the concomitant additional costs to the ratepayer. A minimum requirement of say 10 000 litres, with a rebate for every kilolitre in excess thereof, will also provide an incentive, and assist households already under strain.

Those people who have taken action by installing rain water tanks already, will be reaping the rewards of being able to sustain their gardens by careful irrigation from their tanks (also a finite supply for judicious use only!) which will have been topped up by the recent rains. Unfortunately the quantity of rain is insufficient to get us out of the proverbial dwang, but it has brought welcome relief and greened up things a bit. The next area to target is grey water harvesting, and there are systems available for collecting, filtering and hygenically using grey water (e.g. see http://www.waterconservation.co.za/?page_id=7). Grey water should not under any circumstances just be stored for later use or poured out on to your soil, there are very stringent requirements for doing this hygenically and safely; see the link above for more information. Swimming pool backwashing is also wasteful, and it is possible to collect the backwash water under stringent conditions also set out on the website above – another simple means of more efficient water use. These are relatively affordable ways of becoming part of the solution, rather than continuing to be part of the problem!

Indigenous gardens will surely become the garden of choice, because they generally require very little irrigation, thus freeing the rain water harvested for other uses. The impact of such an approach is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that in Gauteng, in excess of 50% of the monthly urban household water consumption is for garden irrigation. It will be naive at best to think that, hey presto, in three years we will have unlocked all that water, but without a degree in the sciences, it’s not hard to figure that it’s something which makes an immense improvement on the status quo, and is environmentally sound.

Sure, it’s easy to sit on the sideline and pontificate about what “we” should be doing, but it has to start somewhere, and by tabling the issue, at least it surfaces in the public domain, and hopefully will start the thought processes for people to understand that there are alternatives worth considering, which at the very least do not exacerbate an already serious situation. Going with the flow, so to speak, is always easier than swimming upstream, and I have only a little understanding of the challenges faced by municipal officials in trying to do things differently. Perhaps anything less is not starkly different to re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic, facetious as that may sound! Co-operation with efforts to conserve water may sound unattractive, but they are vastly better than running out of water – you make the choice. I appeal to all our visitors who will leave Plett in a week or two, PLEASE take care how you use our water and let’s make sure we don’t run out. It is possible if you make the effort.

Chris Behrens, Chris Behrens Consulting Engineers CC – Working towards a greener tomorrow

References: Coming Down to Earth, The Changing South African Environment by James Clarke, http://www.waterconservation.co.za/?page_id=7

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