Menu

Karoo Stories: When it rains, it pours

The gravel road that leads to Vlakfontein Farm begins with a nondescript turn, tucked off a country highway. The road was just good enough for my compact VW Polo rental car, though at times I was struggling through muddy patches or skidding across stones. The original plan was to follow the instructions Peter and Clare Barnes-Webb, the retired farmers of Vlakfontein, gave me — a simple enough set of turns and landmarks once I had left the freeway. But I took a wrong turn and was instead using my phone’s GPS for the rest of the way, before I lost cell reception. During the hour-and-a-half trip on that gravel road, I saw only two other cars. Most of the scenery flitting by was like the photo below: small mountains (koppies in Afrikaans) and sparsely populated fields filled with low brush and hardy grass. In the area around the farm, sheep farming is king, and thousands of sheep roam freely behind taut barb-wire fences. In other words, it was a classic Karoo scene.

A classic Karoo scene
A classic Karoo scene. Beyond the fence, thousands of sheep graze on brush and hardy grass.

The Karoo is a vast semi-arid landscape that covers 40% of South Africa and huge tracts of the Northern Cape Province (the largest province by area). Despite the relative lack of rainfall and the desert-like views, the Karoo supports large grape, lucerne (alfalfa), wool and maize industries. Farmers can survive out here both because of the open land available and vast groundwater supplies. For instance, on Vlakfontein and its neighboring farm, Grootfontein, groundwater supplies all the drinking water and even supports a small poplar and cedar forest.

Crucially, farmers are surviving in parts of the Karoo because of how South Africa has tamed the Orange River and its main tributary, the Vaal, for irrigation. For thousands of years, the Orange was not a perennial river. It would dry up for months at a time only to violently flood later on, making it hardly reliable for irrigation. At points the river was filled with silt — a farmer told me that back then, “the Orange was too thick to drink and too thin to plow.” The dream to control the Orange came to fruition with the Gariep and Van der Kloof dams, and both were built in the ‘60s and ‘70s as part of the apartheid-era “Orange River Development Project”. These dams transformed the fickle Orange into a river that could be used to generate hydropower, provide drinking water to cities, and irrigate farmland for thousands of kilometers.

For the next 5 weeks, I’ll be canvassing a small portion of the Karoo around the Orange and the Vaal to explore how irrigation schemes and big dams have transformed the Orange river basin. Mainly, I’ll be homing in on the social costs and benefits these projects have had for local populations. Van der Kloof and Gariep dams did not have the mass displacement that a mega-dam, like the Three Gorges Dam, had on local populations. The social costs for these two dams were relatively limited, but occurred during apartheid, so non-whites had none of the legal rights that whites had. Black and ‘coloured’ (mixed-race) farmworkers sometimes had the choice of moving to new farms with their white farmers when construction began, but sometimes did not.

The might Gariep Dam as seen from a nearby viewpoint
The might Gariep Dam as seen from a nearby viewpoint

The only report that examined the social impacts of these dams found that most farmworkers and farmers did not see a direct benefit of the dams to their lives. Some mentioned increased job opportunities for local workers when dam construction began, because foreign firms (terrible pun alert) flooded the area and needed labor. But when these firms and subcontractors left, so too did most of the job opportunities, and they largely haven’t returned since. Increased mechanization of farms, and a decline in labor-intensive horse breeding in this slice of the Karoo, have further decreased opportunities.

The benefits of these dams are very diffuse and affect millions of individuals indirectly. Municipal water is pumped through a giant tunnel all the way to Port Elizabeth, hundreds of kilometers away on the coast. Irrigation schemes benefit black and white farmers alike and keep water-intensive farms afloat.  In short, the net benefits of large infrastructure projects like these are complicated and nuanced. A report on the Orange River Development Project from the World Commission on Dams did find, however, that many initial estimates, like projected agricultural yields and municipal water transfers, were significantly lower than what the project proposed. The project also ran significantly over-budget.

So instead of trying to pass judgement on the overall net benefit of the Orange River Development Project (at least right now), I’m here trying to collect as many stories as I can, Story Corps style. With a 20-year-old list of farmworkers and farmers who had to move during dam construction in hand, I’ve been trying to reach some of them and hear their stories. I’ll be posting these ‘Karoo Stories’ here frequently as I follow the Orange River westward across the country.

_________________________________________________________________________

“You’ll find that water is everywhere. It’s what farmers always talk about,” says Clare as we step gingerly around the mud-soaked kitchen. The night before, when heavy rain pelted the farmhouse, it seemed like a fantasy that there was a drought at all in the Karoo. Until a few weeks back, it hadn’t rained much since Easter 2016, and the beautiful green landscape I saw now was mostly brown, dusty and beige.

The night before, Peter, Clare and me watched as a light rain transformed into a small flood. The water began to lap up to the veranda stairs and soon we were taking turns sweeping the porch, trying to beat it back from one of the doors. Soon an inch of water flowed into the living room, lifting jagged cork tiles off the floor of this 1860s farmhouse. We spent the night sweeping water out of the house and hoping it would dry. The next morning, we carried away a soggy carpet, a family heirloom, and hoisted it on long tables in a shed to dry.

Rain came swiftly and violently on February 10th, flooding parts of the farmhouse at Vlakfontien
Rain came swiftly and violently on February 10th, flooding parts of the farmhouse at Vlakfontein.

Before all the rain, Peter told me that “there’s nothing that makes a Karoo farmer smile more than a good rain storm.” By the time it was over he was cursing under his breath. He’d never seen water flow into the house before, in his 40-odd years since moving to Vlakfontein from his father’s farm. The farm rain gauge only collects up to 100mm (~4 inches) of water, and it was overflowing by the time we looked at it. 

But it was good to see water, and I got the sense that beggars can’t be choosers in a drought-prone area. Rain water for Karoo farmers replenishes vital aquifers, nourishes shrubs and grass for sheep to graze on, and can be stored for irrigation. Peter and I walked around to a small dam on the farm that had filled up and began overflowing overnight, sending water through a series of tributaries that merged with the Orange River. That dam hadn’t been filled for years, Peter noted. As we took stock of the water damage while driving around in his bakkie (pick-up truck), Peter pointed towards another set of rain clouds gathering over the koppies. The clouds were dark and a not-so-subtle reminder for me to collect my laundry off the line before it was too late.

You might say that’s ominous,” he says, looking at the clouds.

Yup.

“For a Karoo farmer, I’d say that’s promising.”

Dusk settles in near Vlakfontein
Dusk settles in near Vlakfontein

(Update: I left Vlakfontein farm in a hurry because the farm received another 25mm of water the day after the flood, with more on the horizon. The road into the farm house becomes impassable at times from both directions, which would have left me stranded there with my small car for a week or more. Both Vlakfontein and Grootfontein each have dams on the property, and there were a few holes in Grootfontein’s secondary dam wall. Had it rained more, water could have tumbled over the first dam wall and careened through the second wall, flooding the farmhouse at Grootfontein and possibly the road. I spent the morning walking around the dam wall with Peter as workers and Jacques, the property manager, cemented the largest of these gaps).

Ishan Thakore, a multimedia storyteller and journalist, is creating a series of short films to portray a nuanced portrait of the human benefits as well as the costs of large-scale water development in South Africa. Follow him here on the Voices blog, on Twitter and on Instagram