Of boreholes and lawns: letter to a neighbour


Dear neighbour with a borehole:

I walked past your property the other day. Friends wanted to see round the estate, which is why we were out in the midday sun, in 33-degree heat with the southeaster wind adding edge but no coolness.

You have a borehole. That day, you also had a sprinkler spraying your bright green lawn. The wind was whipping most of the water away into thin air. Your pool was uncovered, and a pipe was pumping in water, which lapped to the brim. No one was swimming; your family and friends were sitting around the lunch table.

Gallons of ink and a megazillion bytes have been spilled or spent whining, howling and protesting at the way the City of Cape Town has handled a three-year drought which has us facing, in two short months, Day Zero: when we’ll open our taps and no water will flow out. Malls and businesses – anywhere that requires flushing toilets to remain operational – will have no choice but to shut down. The economic consequences will be unimaginably dire, the infrastructural damage significant. You and I will have to collect drinking water rations under the oversight of the army.

It’s no good crying over spilled water, but I have one major beef with the CoCT: that they’re quite happy to go on allowing you to toss your precious borehole water all over your lawn. That Level 6 water restrictions STILL permit you to do so, with zero legal consequences. Dear CoCT, what staggering tomfoolery is this? Over the period of a year, I witnessed my former landlords replace five acres of mostly indigenous garden with lawns and orchards on which the sprinklers ran from 10am until 4pm, Monday to Friday. (They still do, according to the gardeners.) And because they have a borehole, you allow this. How could you, CoCT, enable such abysmal stupidity and short-sightedness?

But let’s get back to you, dear neighbour. Do you believe in the Tooth Fairy? Santa Claus? That the water in your borehole will just hold out, magically, forever? That it’s an inexhaustible supply, provided by elves who live underground?

Guess what: a drought affects boreholes too. They are replenished by water from the skies soaking away into the ground. No winter rains for three years in a row means that groundwater is scarce and boreholes are running low everywhere.

Did you study science in primary school? You do know that living a kilometre or two from the sea, if the groundwater is depleted, salt water will seep in and render your borehole utterly unusable for the rest of your lifetime? There are no magical elves to stop this happening. Drain away all the fresh water, and salt water (which you won’t be able to use for your goddamn lawn, much less anything more essential, like boiling for drinking and flushing the toilet) will take its place. For good. Don't believe me? Google “saltwater intrusion” or “groundwater extraction”, and Wikipedia will break the bad news to you.

I concede that I am tired, hot and grumpy. I have been bathing in a bucket and peeing in the garden (including while recovering from major surgery) for 14 months. FOURTEEN MONTHS. My hair is constantly filthy and no amount of deodorant can mask the fact that I’m a bit whiffy. I wear the same stained and crumpled clothes day after day. I have “bucket back” from constantly hauling grey water and harvested rainwater for flushing. So I am in no mood to tolerate your pool and your lawn.

I recently hosted a wedding at my house. To make this possible, another neighbour offered me water from their well point. They have no pool, and their garden, like mine, is mostly dead. They use their water for household needs to take the strain off the municipal supply.

We filled my bath with their well point water, and collected another 50 litres in clean containers. This meant that 45 adults and 15 children had water for flushing. We also used that water for the wedding flowers, and all the cleaning, wiping and washing-up. We boiled it for coffee and tea. My pets are still drinking it.

Dear neighbour, THIS is what you’re going to be needing your borehole water for -- very, very soon. And although I wouldn’t wish this on you, there’s a chance that just when you need that water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing and flushing, you won’t have any left. I wonder if you’ll feel your lawn was worth it.


Helen Moffett