‘We will start farming camels here’
Meet the farmers on the banks of Cape Town’s largest (almost empty) dam
“Our average rainfall used to be 950mm a year but last year we only received 350mm,” says 71-year-old farmer Albert Lingenfelder snr.
“This is going to become a desert and we will have to start farming camels here because that’s the only thing that will survive.”
Lingenfelder was born on Rustfontein Farm on the banks of Theewaterskloof dam, near Villiersdorp in the Western Cape, and says he has never seen the dam this empty.On Monday, Theewaterskloof was just 13.3% full, and its level is sinking by around a percentage point every week. Once it hits 10%, the water becomes murky and difficult to use.The calamity of Day Zero can be seen in the headline posters stuck to lampposts in Cape Town and in the queues of people waiting to fill containers at Newlands spring. But for farmers living on the banks of Theewaterskloof dam, Day Zero is more palpable, more real.“Ja, it’s devastating. We see it the whole day. If I wake up in the mornings I see this and it’s not very nice," said Albert Lingerfelder jnr.
In previous seasons, the Lingenfelders used an estimated one million cubic litres of water to irrigate their 150 hectares of apple, peach and pear orchards. Now 60% of their water has been cut as a result of the Cape’s worst drought in 400 years.
Farmers are racing against time to ensure their fruit can be harvested in April. After the harvest is complete, no more water will go to the trees.
“For a tree, growing fruit is like running. Once the fruit is picked, the run ends and the tree needs water to rehydrate. Without water the tree will suffer which will result in a negative effect for the next season,” says Guillaume Lingenfelder, one of the three sons managing the farm.Even with the 60% water reduction, farmers have been criticised for their water use by certain parts of the Cape Town community.Cosatu’s Western Cape provincial secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, said: “In these critical times we need to stop water for irrigation that is not central to food security. Only people and livestock should get water now, as wines and fruit exports are not central needs.”But the Lingenfelders believe this criticism is unfair and uninformed.“We have paid for the rights to our share of water out of the dam. On top of that we pay Eskom upwards of R200,000 to pump the water the 3.5km onto our farm every month. We employ 250 seasonal workers and our water supply has been reduced by 60% already. If we stop farming, hundreds of people will be out of a job.”Theewaterskloof Dam
Theewaterskloof is the largest dam in the Western Cape water supply system with a capacity for 480-million cubic metres. Established in 1978, the dam serves municipal and industrial use. Theewaterskloof dam was officially opened in 1980 and is owned by the Department of Water and Sanitation.Agri-Western Cape CEO Carl Opperman echoed the Lingenfelders’ sentiments. “The foundation of your cities, your financial institutions, your engineering companies, your defence forces, your police and your hospitals is agriculture and without that, nothing can operate,” says Opperman.Images taken from Nasa Earth Observatory from January 3, 2014 to January 14, 2018An estimated 50,000 seasonal jobs have already been lost and Opperman said the agriculture sector had suffered a R14-billion loss due to the water crisis.
Farmers’ expenses are also rising. The Lingenfelders have installed a R150,000 water-saving sprinkler system to irrigate the ground directly below each tree instead of the entire surface. They have also installed sensors in the soil which register moisture levels, meaning they can irrigate only when necessary.
Dust storms have become an added thorn in the side of the farmers near the dam.Winds pick up the newly exposed soil from the dry dam bed and create a cloud of dust that lands on the orchards. Pesticides are required to kill red spiders, which thrive in the dusty, dry environment.
“Factories don’t want to buy our peaches because of the dust residue on them. Red spiders cause problems too as they take chlorophyll out of the leaves, killing the plant in the process,” says Albert snr.
“At night I can’t sleep anymore – I’m so stressed,” said Albert jnr. “We wanted to expand and even ordered the trees to do so but now we can’t do anything without water. All the people think it’s so easy and nice to farm but they don’t see the stress we go through.”The Lingenfelders believe the rain will arrive in April. “Our orchards won’t die because we are sure to get some rain,” said Albert snr. “The trees might throw off their leaves and start flowering again but the rain is coming.”
“Climate change is upon us,” said Opperman. “However, our teams are ready for any possibility – even in the case of a flood, believe it or not. As they say, us farmers always have a plan.”