by Leonie Joubert

Tugging at the frayed edges of the world

environmentSit yourself in front of a glass of water, stare into its depths and consider how ancient and well-travelled it is. Here’s why.

One molecule of water – that tasteless coalition of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen – might be flung down in a snowflake over Antarctica during a storm, locked away in a glacier for millennia before being cast adrift in the Southern Ocean in an enormous chunk of bobbing ice. This chunk will then melt, freeing the molecule to swirl about in currents for decades or even centuries. A chance encounter with the right conditions might see it sucked up to the skies, gathered into clouds and swept towards the Cape peninsula during a particularly black south-easterly wind. The mountains will harvest the front’s mist, channelling droplets of water from the frilly edges of its vegetation, down the mountainside, into a municipal reservoir, through a network of (often-leaking) pipes and into your glass.

The point of this frolic through the natural history of a water molecule is this: who on Earth can claim ownership of that bit of water, which has shape-shifted between solid, liquid and gas more times than can be counted? This molecule is part of the global commons – those massive bodies of natural resources upon which we all depend for survival and which operate outside of any manufactured notion of ownership us modern humans have formalised in the form of title deeds and property rights. Of course, no one can own the atmosphere, the oceans or the water cycle. But we can still mess it up. For one family farming rooibos tea in the Northern Cape, this means trouble.

The homestead is a cluster of small buildings – some made from reeds and mud, others from brick. There is no electricity, being as it is so far from the national grid. A telephone line was only recently installed. Running water is not an option, since the farm has no extractable groundwater and it’s too far from anywhere to get municipal water piped in. Since the family settled here in 1960, they have depended on a nearby spring which filters through sand and bedrock before spilling into a catchment area. From here, they collect it in buckets for cooking, cleaning, drinking and tending to their livestock. But after four years of drought, the spring has withered to little more than a muddy puddle, leaving them to haul in their water by bakkie. Natural drought cycles are written into the farm’s history, but this one is bad, and it’s a harbinger of things to come. They farm on the last margin of fynbos before the natural veld gives way to succulent Karoo. Evidence suggests that climate change is pushing the desert south, threatening to engulf this farm and strip farmers of their livelihood.

The water cycle which brings this farm its water is beyond the ownership rights of any body, whether national or private. It is part of the greater system, those global commons which are all held in trust for us, by us. And yet to quote the naturalist and writer John Muir, “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, [one] finds it attached to the rest of the world”. As far as this farm is concerned, the developed world is tugging on things mostly in the North, producing atmospheric pollution that is causing things to unravel so far away in the South. Who would have thought, when that first steam engine was unveiled at the start of the industrial revolution, that a community’s actions on one side of the planet would uncouple the water cycle upon which another is dependent, half a world away.

Leonie Joubert is writing up this family’s story as part of a five-part narrative for the Ruth First Fellowship, to be presented in a public lecture in Johannesburg on 17 August.


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