Water is life



When I visited the Karoo in January this year it was 40 degrees. I fell in love with a windmill. The clunking sound followed by the swish of water surging up through the pipe. Strangely soothing. The windmill kept the reservoir dam replenished and dog and humans refreshed.

This time the Karoo was cold and wet. Very wet. Staying overnight in Laingsburg, not far from the river with bucketing rain. It was impossible not to remember the devastating floods of 1981 that are traumatised into historical memory. Rain didn’t quite stop play, but it did change the intended destination. Re-routing to Prince Albert. A very wet Prince Albert. Here I fell in love again. This time with “leiwater”. In English “lead water” just doesn’t get it. The Afrikaans sounds as if it is … flowing.

Each property with “leiwater rights” is allocated a turn – once or twice a week. Property owners have the responsibility to open and close their sluice gates accordingly – to let water into a property or to let the water pass onto a neighbour. Sometimes the allocated time is at 1 a.m. in the morning – which can’t be too much fun – but water is life. It doesn’t take a lot to imagine the number of “water wars” over the years, especially because Prince Albert tends to run out or come close to running out of water most Decembers. So, the temptation to run the leiwater a litter longer into one’s property must be devilishly difficult to resist. Furthermore, not taking one’s turn can lead to flooding for the people located at the bottom of town. So, all in all the town survives on sharing. A finely balanced neighbourliness. Which is actually true for all towns but not as easily evident. As they say: Love thy neighbourhood.

Here is a delightful story about leiwater in Prince Albert – perhaps even a parable for the role of the church.

In grace,

Two farmers eye-balled each other over the water furrow running alongside the main street of the tiny Karoo town of Prince Albert. This was the 1960s and water to irrigate their small-holdings was scarce. It hadn’t rained for months and the constant trickle of “leiwater” from a spring in the Swartberg Mountains was all they could rely on to feed their crops.

“You are stealing my water,” accused one, brandishing a spade. “This is my water,” spat the other also raising a spade.

Defiantly the first man tried to close the furrow into his neighbour’s dam.

“Touch that water and I will stop you with this spade.” The second lunged at his neighbour threatening to knock his knees out from underneath him. A crowd was growing to watch the fight but after a few tense minutes the second farmer closed his furrow and allowed his neighbour to have water.

“Now it’s your turn,” he said looking at his watch.

The first farmer glared at him. “Your watch is slow,” he grumbled.

“No, your watch is fast.”

Squinting under the harsh light of the Karoo the two sun-browned old men examined each other’s watches. It was true – one was too fast and the other was too slow. Neither knew for sure when his “leiwater” turn started or ended. At that moment the church clock struck the hour.

“The church clock is never wrong,” said the representative from the town’s Irrigation Board who, relieved that the spades had finally been laid down, spoke up for the first time. “Why don’t you both set your watches by the church clock and then maybe next week you won’t fight.”

Reluctantly the men changed their watches. The following week, when it was once more time for them to take water, they suspiciously studied the church clock as the “leiwater” trickled into one small dam and then the other. For the first time in years both agreed on the other’s time for water.

This story, told by the chairman of Prince Albert’s Kweekvallei Irrigation Board, Sas de Kock, highlights the importance of proper management of water in an environment where regular rainfall in unpredictable.

From that day onwards the “leiwater” turns in Prince Albert have run strictly to the time on the church clock – it’s the only way ownership of this scarce resource in the remote semi-desert village hasn’t ended in murder.



Story from: TheWaterWheel November/December2003