Catastrophic drought

The arid landscape in the Karoo National Park.
The arid landscape in the Karoo National Park.

The week before last, I found myself at the side of a seldom-used road in the middle of the dead-dry Karoo, trying to tempt two skinny looking donkeys to eat the apples I held for them with outstretched arms.

I’d bought the apples in Uniondale after seeing them wandering forlornly along the road between Steytlerville and Willowmore, no water, food or owner in sight. We pulled up next to them on the return trip.

As I sidled up to them, I made what I thought were comforting horsey clicking noises but they remained suspicious of me and wouldn’t let me get close. So I gently tossed an apple towards them. They started and bolted off to a safer distance from me. I begged them out loud to believe I was helping them, but as I showed them the other apples, throwing them a little harder and closer to where they were, they galloped further away. I was gutted.

I left the apples and hoped they’d return sometime.

The plight of those donkeys keeps niggling at me.

I’ve recently returned from a road trip through the Eastern, Western and a bit of the Northern Cape and the Free State.

The journey was sobering in many respects as we saw the marked decline in the small towns, provoked by the catastrophic drought there.

We’ve all read about the drought and the desperate situations of the farmers and townsfolk there, but it was only after seeing it for myself that I realised how dire it is.

Picture this. The veld is scorched. Dust is kicked up in huge clouds all over by the dry Karoo gales raging across the veld. The fine red dust clings to your skin, lips, hair and clothes. When you blow your nose you realise there’s dust in your breathing tubes. Your nose bleeds at times.

It’s that bad.

We saw no streams or rivers running. The watering holes and farm dams are dry. The Karoo bushes are mostly dead. The hardy thorn trees lie broken. The landscape is 50 shades of brown, red and grey. The Karoo “bossies” we saw flowering in a rainbow of hues on a similar trip a few years ago at the same time, were gone. It’s devastating to see and hard to imagine a recovery anytime soon.

This drought has done years and years of damage. The veld is like a desert. We saw virtually no insects and far fewer tortoises and buck. Farms have been overgrazed and there’s nothing left.

We saw little towns where desperate-looking locals sat around doing nothing all day, their dignity shot to hell. They’ve lost their jobs on the farms and in the businesses that service them.

The local shops have scant supplies. People aren’t buying so the shops can’t stock up. Everywhere we went people were talking about the drought. There’s an air of deep depression in places. Farmers have cut drastically the numbers of their stock. Even the hardy angora goats are struggling.

I spoke to a man in Beaufort West and asked him how the community was coping with the effects of the drought and their empty town dam. “We just keep hoping for rain. If we give up hope, we’ve got nothing.”

Amid the devastation and despair of local people, some of whom justifiably feel let down by the authorities, there is one man whose name is held up like a beacon of hope.

Dr Imtiaz Sooliman of the international aid organisation Gift of the Givers, is widely seen to be someone who cares about the forgotten towns of the Karoo.

He’s gone in with specialists to bore down to find the cool reserves of underground aquifers to pump water to those who need it.

He’s gone in with trucks full of fodder, water tanks and supplies — we saw them on the road — to help stricken farmers and locals. He’s co-ordinating life-giving relief.

“Prayer and a unified approach with government, the private sector, farming communities and the public at large is the only realistic way to deal with the unprecedented challenges of a drought that has wreaked untold devastation on man, animal, environment and the economy,” said Sooliman.

Indeed, many of the locals are praying hard.

While having coffee at a place in Ladi­smith in the Klein Karoo, we heard the familiar sound of church bells tolling the hour at noon, as all Karoo townsfolk hear all day (and night!).

But this time the clock carried on chiming. I counted up to 52 chimes then gave up.

Has the church clock fried in this 41° Celsius heat, we wondered?

No, the café owner told us. It was the daily reminder to townsfolk to pray for rain. Even I bowed my head.

Call it prayer, call it doing anything so you feel like you’ve done something. In the face of this wide-scale catastrophe, and the lingering thought of “my” stricken donkeys, it was the only thing I could do in that moment.

Gift of the Givers’ Dr Imtiaz Sooliman calls for urgent support from all

He’s a really busy man. But by his own admission, he thrives on the adrenaline of it all. Dr Imtiaz Sooliman is all smiles and welcoming when he shows me into his office in Prince Alfred Street, the nerve centre of all the aid work GoG does, locally, nationally and internationally. And things are frenetic right now.

Recently, the Gift of the Givers delivered eight truckloads of fodder to Graaff-Reinet. In a statement about the mercy dash to help farmers, Sooliman said the request for fodder among emerging and commercial farmers was “overwhelming, [there’s] desperation in their eyes, a deep compassion to feed hungry and dying animals”.


Dr Imtiaz Sooliman 

Sooliman says the fodder delivery was led by Hester Obermeyer and Sybil Visagie, their two “outstanding co-ordinators that have relentlessly sourced and delivered fodder to countless communities in Northern, Eastern, Western Cape and now KZN”.

Dr Gideon Groenewald, Gift of the Givers hydrologist, was due to be on site to witness the drilling of the eight boreholes in the town. Sooliman says the first five boreholes yielded 102 000 litres per day, collectively, and they were taking bottled water, water tankers and two truckloads of water from Gift of the Givers’ Makhanda depot. They’ve also donated nutritional supplies for children.

I ask him about the scale of the water crisis in the Cape and elsewhere in South Africa. He says their drought intervention started in 2015 in the North West and the Free State. “The 2017 Knysna fire was so big because of drought. Everything was dry and there was not enough water to fight fire.

“Then Sutherland called for help with fodder. Their animals were dying. The list of places we’re helping at has gone through the roof — the North West, Eastern Cape, Southern Cape and now KZN. We’ve drilled 230 boreholes in the last year, yielding 85 million litres a day.

“The sheep count was 440 000 a few years ago; it’s now 40 000.”

Sooliman says during Cape Town’s 2018 day-zero crisis they shifted massive amounts of water from Durban and Joburg to Cape Town. “While we were putting in boreholes in Beaufort West and Touws Rivier, we got calls from Makhanda in February and then Aberdeen.

“Fodder is one aspect and water requirements were increasing. Then we got calls from Adelaide. Adelaide was collapsing. The dam was at zero. We were still working at Makhanda.

“Then the calls came. The Graaff-Reinet dam is at zero. The boreholes are non-functional. The water pressure can’t reach disadvantaged communities. Clinics don’t have water, patients can’t take meds, kids are thirsty. Schools don’t have water for ablutions. It’s a knock-on effect. There’s the emotional aspect, psychological and medical aspects. The feeding scheme was collapsing. People can’t cook, the sanitation is affected.

“In Adelaide, my team heard a sound. When they went to look for that sound they found a lamb. A sheep had given birth and had left its lamb alone. Sheep don’t just do that. It didn’t have the energy to feed its newborn so it just walked away. Then we found three more. It’s happening all over. It’s terrible. Cattle are dropping dead everywhere, even when they are walking in town in search of food.”

But amid the stories of despair, came hope. “We had an amazing reaction in Adelaide. When they opened the water tank for the first time and as the water started trickling in, it started making a sound and animals started running towards the water tanker.”


Dr Imtiaz Sooliman (left) and Dr Gideon Groenewald take a sip of fresh water from a borehole in Beaufort West. (PHOTO: CITY PRESS) 

Sooliman says because the farms were suffering losses as animals died, the farm workers started losing their jobs.

“Each worker supports seven people. A town like Fraserburg was ready to shut down. The economy died. All the banks closed. The rural towns are economically finished because the farmers’ — who are the money spinners — export earnings have been hit. Animals are dying so farmers can’t sell them, and there’s foreclosure from the banks

“People who have had farms for years and years are losing their farms. People are depressed. Today I spoke to a guy delivering fodder, who said that for the first time in their lives Afrikaner farmers are asking for food parcels for themselves. They can’t send their kids to school, they don’t have the money. Their accounts are maxed out at the co-op, at the bank their credit cards, everything. Quite a few have committed suicide.


I tell him that on my recent trip people spoke highly of him and Gift of the Givers. He smiles.

“In Queenstown we went in with our truck. We didn’t say water was coming. They just saw the name Gift of the Givers. As soon as they saw it, the people started shouting ‘Amanzi!’. There were old people running down from the mountains to collect water.

“Some guy called me on Monday and said I’ll give you 40 trucks of fodder. Everyone wants to be part of us. We’re pushing in bottled water, water tankers, fodder, and drilling boreholes. I’ve spent R230 million on drought relief so far.”


At last, the government is taking notice of the work Sooliman and his teams are doing. “Lindiwe Sisulu (Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation) has approached us to appoint us as a rapid response team to the department. She phones three times a week and speaks for nothing under 30 minutes.”

He says she has asked for time to sort things out in her department and has pledged to make money available from Treasury. “She’s cancelled tenders from municipalities. She pulled back over R600 million. She said this money’s wasted and people are getting rich while people who need delivery don’t get it. She went to Tito [Mboweni — minister of Finance] directly.”

Treasury said they can appoint Gift of the Givers in terms of disaster management. “We can see they are serious. She calls to ask everyday if the money has come. So far it hasn’t. People think we got paid, but we still haven’t got paid. We still haven’t got paid at Makhanda, but the good thing is that the crooks didn’t get the money!” He laughs and I join in. There is some comfort in that.

“We spent R17 million in Grahamstown and they wanted to give us R2,4 million. I said it’s fine, I don’t need your money, I’m doing this for the people.”


How can South Africa help?

“I really need the corporates to come on board in a big way. Yes, government makes money available but the reality is that government can’t manage this problem. It’s too big. You have to have support. And a special thanks to all those farmers who have generously donated fodder, because they don’t know when they’ll need it. But they’re sending it still in big loads, so there’s also a massive need for fuel to pay for the trucks to take it. We also really need horse and trailers.”

He asks that government, corporates, high net-worth individuals, the public, the media and crowd-funding platforms intervene urgently to save what’s left and turn the situation around. “We need to hold hands together to lift our people in a dignified manner for our collective prosperity.”


A borehole costs between R100 000 and R500 000, depending on how deep it needs to go, the rock it must go through, the type of drill bits needed, piping, electricity or solar power needed, if you’re using diesel, and long it takes.

“But in 2015 the one in QwaQwa cost me R700 000. The Grahamstown borehole — the one we put up at the school and never got paid for — is now supporting Grahamstown, Adelaide, Bedford, Queenstown, King William’s Town, and Graaff-Reinet. Not all on the same day, but it can provide a million litres a day. On top of sinking boreholes, we put in filtration systems and chemicals. Everywhere we went, people said you won’t find water. We found water in three hours.”

While talking to me, Sooliman is checking his phone because he’s part of efforts to rescue South Africans trapped in Syria.

“We’ve been doing big interventions this week. We’ll be drilling in Qwa-Qwa. There’s a big water crisis there. The main source of water in Qwa-Qwa is our borehole we put in four years ago.”


He sings his praise for his team. His eyes shine as he speaks of their achievements to help people. When he speaks about the hydrologist who works with him, Dr Gideon Groenewald, his eyes dance. “He is the genius, he’s the fundi. I don’t think anyone in SA can touch this guy.”

Sooliman says Groenewald has pinpoint accuracy for finding water.

“He went to Cradock, a farmer was crying. He said his great-great grandfather farmed here, his great-grandfather, grandfather and father and now he’s going to lose this farm. Groenewald looked at his map, did his prayer and the next morning, boom! Thirty metres in front of the guy’s roof. The man’s a genius!

“At Adelaide they drilled 1 000 metres down, they couldn’t find water. This man came and found it in a few hours. At Makhanda they said, old man you won’t find water here. The same story at Adelaide, and Graaff-Reinet.”


“At Sutherland, the guys were sceptical. We’re a Muslim organisation and some of the guys there are Afrikaner conservatives. They said why are those guys coming here. We said one sheep and a thousand rand was all we need [to provide water]. It wouldn’t cover the costs.”

His co-ordinators on the ground in Sutherland told him that some of the farmers were saying, “what’s the catch?”.

“Doc, they said, it’s so funny. They were asking are we going to put a mosque here? Are we going to convert them, are we going to take their land? One month has gone, two, three. They’re waiting for the catch. What is the bloody catch?” (Sooliman laughs as he tells this story.)

“Two years later they realise there’s no catch and now they just love us there. In Adelaide, when a farmer started praying, he said: ‘God, thank you for the drought.’ The guys asked why. He said ‘this drought has united us. We don’t see colour, we don’t see race, we don’t see religion anymore. It has educated us. Our whole perspective in life has changed.’

“They’re doing things for the emerging farmers. They’re taking fodder to them. They’re working together as one.”

Faith and local knowledge help Oom Gideon find the water

“I don’t pray for rain. I pray for the wisdom to find the water.”

That’s what Dr Gideon Groene- wald told me when I called him last week. He’s the man who has gained recognition for his uncanny ability to find water where no one else can in the drought-ravaged areas around our country.

The drought, and the massive humanitarian crisis caused by it, is far from over, he said, and an unexpected consequence of this for the general public may be that we go back to eating sorghum products like Maltabella instead of mielie meal.

The sobering news is that the life-giving pockets of water he manages to find, stored in precious aquifers underground, are running out. Fast.

The Gift of the Givers’ hydrologist earnestly asked me to call him Oom Gideon instead of Dr Groenewald when I called him on Friday.

He said we’re lucky to have excellent primary aquifers in our country (loose sand, gravels and weathered rocks into which water seeps when it rains) which hold the best ground water. He added that dolomite chambers which also hold water underground are the country’s saving grace but they’re being used up by farmers irrigating maize.

He’s not a fan of this. “Maize uses five times the amount of water than sorghum does. We’re using the wrong plant to make food in the desert, but we have three generations of people who say they would rather eat mieliepap than Maltabella. In 1981, we were all having to eat yellow mielie meal because the white mielie meal ran out. There will have to be a return to historic foods.”

Groenewald believes that the drought still has two more years to play out and that the country would take some seven years from then to recover from its effects.

“There is a change in the global climate. We’ll see the Earth warm up and in 20 to 30 years, sea levels will rise 12 metres. People will have to move away from the coast.”

Groenewald said the pattern of places experiencing either flooding or very dry weather is typical for a global warming period and that the intense cyclones and hurricanes around the world suck the moisture from the atmosphere, leaving dry air in its place. He believes that weather phenomenon of extreme heat followed by extreme cold will also intensify, as indicated by research of historical data. He told the story of a mammoth that was found in Siberia frozen solid with green grass in its mouth, indicating a drop in temperature from 30° Celsius to -53° in just four hours. He said the great variations we are seeing in temperatures, where the maximum temperature is 38° C one day and 12° C the next, will intensify because of global warming.

So the question Groenewald is asked the most comes up: How does he find the water?

He has unconventional methods, seemingly combining science and his deep Christian faith.

“I wake up at 1 am and block out the area I want to concentrate on using a satellite image. I go 78 kilometres above the area (on the image) and use my knowledge of the Karoo to find the places water may be.”

And he has extensive knowledge of the geology of the Karoo. He has spent much time examining the Karoo ground and rocks, mapping it out at 10 cm levels to research and write into history what the climate patterns have been.

He examines the plants along the cracks that form where the rock that is conducive to storing water runs.

He also uses the ancient knowledge of the local people who name plants and rivers using words that translate into, for example, a river called “lots of water”, or “don’t rely on me”.

“The language of Africa contains survival information. If you don’t speak the languages, you won’t know,” said Groenewald.

Then, from 1 am to 4 am, Groenewald meditates and prays. “God created the Earth and is in control of it — global warming and drought too. He reveals the water to me during prayer.” But after 4 am, the gift is gone. “I no longer see where it is.”

Groenewald said he then maps the lines revealed to him at this time and uses science on the ground with the help of a magnetometer to help direct where the boreholes must go.

And indeed, he seems to hit his target with great accuracy.

But while he can find the water, it doesn’t mean it won’t run out. “The water levels are dropping underground at a dramatic pace. We see how the roots of the trees can’t reach down to the water and the trees just die. The severity of the drought is wide-reaching. From Victoria Falls to the Tugela River, the Orange River; big rivers are going.”

He said that when the rain comes, indications are that it could be patchy and localised to smaller areas of around four to five square kilometres.

“If God doesn’t intervene at the Katze Dam [only 13,6% full on October 21], by December there will be wars fought over water in South Africa. People need water, and they will find it and take it.

“This is a natural disaster which is getting worse on a daily basis.”

Gift of the Givers pledged to give school pupils in drought-affected areas 10 litres of water a day. Groenewald said they are now supplying this amount to 7 000 children.

Asked how it makes him feel when the borehole that he directed the drilling of, strikes water, he drew a deep breath in, and said: “The drought is like when someone has died. That feeling when the water is there is like if God had revived them. I know a child will be living tomorrow because of it. Jesus Christ said I will be the living water of the human spirit.”

He said working with Gift of the Givers has deepened his understanding of the Muslim faith.

Groenewald said the effects of the drought on the veld are going to be seen for years and years to come. Infrared imaging shows that the plants in drought-stricken areas are in a dormant phase, something they can take seven years to recover from fully, from when it rains. “They’re in hibernation, like the reptiles.”

He also believes that the strife in some circles in the country has been because people are living in tension because of the drought, and have a deep underlying concern about there being enough water in our future.

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