Little hope that the Eastern Cape drought will break before next year

What are the prospects of the drought ending any time soon? Not great according to SA Weather Service spokesman Garth Samson who I spoke to in Port Elizabeth this week.

“It doesn’t look promising right up to the end of the year,” he said.

“Not promising at all,” he continued. “Port Elizabeth is in a critical position. The earliest relief can only be expected in 2018. The number of days or gaps between ‘major events’ (as a rule of thumb that’s more than 50mm of rain) have been growing over the years.

“Runoff into major dams is decreasing; 10mm here and 20mm there leads to little change; it needs to be more than that to have effect on dam levels. Meteorologically for the rest of the year things are not looking good; statistically it’s not looking good either.”

He said Port Elizabeth dams needed cut-off lows at least once a year to produce enough rain to fill up, or at least receive decent inflows. “It is not happening. And with climate change droughts and floods will be more severe in future.”

Asked about El Niño and La Niña, he said there was nothing to indicate they would have any effect, and around average falls were not going to be good enough.

Well that to me sounded pretty grim; we’re just going to have to bite the bullet and wait for something positive to happen.

Perhaps installing that tank you’ve been thinking about should be done. But if there’s no rain to fill it what’s the point?

Anyway, here are a few more anecdotes gleaned from Chiel columns during and after the Big Drought of 1949 that led to an 11000-ton oil tanker delivering millions of litres of fresh water to the city from Durban in 17 round trips.

We’re not in that sort of predicament at this stage, and we have some good storage dams to prevent it, but who knows, anything can happen, and it often does.

July 1 1949: The East London city council agreed that from July 18 the domestic ration of potable municipal water would be reduced from four gallons a person a day to two (18 litres to nine litres). Meanwhile a scheme, proposed by councillor David Ross Thompson (no relation to this Chiel), to supplement water reserves by shipping water to the port from Durban was to be investigated.

July 2 1949: The drought is worldwide. Britain is anxiously waiting for rain. Drought on the east coast of America is breaking all records. France has a heat wave.

July 8 1949: Durban has agreed to send five million gallons of drinking water to East London by tanker.

And so it went on…Shops and offices closed. More than 4000 people at the City Hall bowed their heads in prayer beseeching the Almighty to send rain to break the drought.

And it must have done a lot of good because a few days later came the announcement that a brand new oil tanker would transport 40 million gallons of water to the city over a two-month period.

“It is said the whole town owed a debt of gratitude to Mr Ross Thompson for his inspiration and the energy with which he took up the tanker scheme,” the Daily Dispatch reported.

Then followed the announcement: “The Shell Company’s brand new oil tanker, Athelcrown, will bring regular supplies of fresh drinking water to the city, crossing the bar into Buffalo harbour at the end of the month, and continue doing so until the drought breaks.”

East London’s future was secured.

However, the ship and its valuable cargo only arrived on August 4 and immediately discharged its liquid gold, which was followed by four more loads in the next two weeks, allowing the Umzoniana reservoir to have its levels restored. “People are managing fairly well on four gallons a day,” deputy mayor Robbie de Lange said.

Could we manage on that today? I don’t think so. However, there was seawater in canvas tanks all over the city that could be used to flush toilets and that helped too.

Finally, on August 23 came relief at last. The Dispatch report next day read: “East London received a thorough drenching from the first good rains to fall in the city for several months. Starting with a thunderstorm that broke shortly after midnight the rain poured down and by the afternoon two inches (50mm) was recorded at the Southernwood filter beds.”

Just goes to show…all good things don’t go away forever. And remember too, August was the month in 1970 that the city’s B-I-G flood occurred. Just a bit of that will do please, not all of it. —

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