With level 5 water restrictions being imposed on Capetonians and the Western Cape in the grip of the worst drought it has seen in 100 years or more, a new summer season looms for a province already in dire straits when it comes to water.
We have been warning for years that this situation was coming, but as is often the case, people only really pay attention to disasters when they are personally hit. Once everyone has to line up every couple days at a designating watering station and fill up a given amount of personal drinking water (don’t even bother by that time to try to turn a tap on as they will all be dry or running at the merest trickle), the message will have hit home thoroughly.
But, of course, we shall be in a new era by then. Indeed, we are already in it. In our previous issue, and many before that, we have looked at ways to sensibly cut your personal, family or business water usage to a minimum. Now, it would seem, most gardens, so loving tended by enthusiasts, are doomed to extinction. But you can still have green things growing around you, even under near desert-like conditions. The very first thing to do, not only because it is inevitable but also to save you the pain of watching your garden shrivel up and turn into a dust-bowl, is pull up those annuals and not plant your summer flower seedlings, as once was normal. Instead, replace everything you can with water-wise, local and hardy drought-resistant plants. With some 2 000 species of Protea types and 5 000 species of Erica, all indigenous to one or other of the worst-affected areas of the Western, Northern and Eastern Cape, you have plenty of choices of plants that will, if not immediately but down the line a bit, develop into a wildlife-supporting seasonal garden of beauty and delight – and not filled with delicate non-indigenous plants requiring lots of water to keep them happy and alive.
There are among these many indigenous water-scarcity resistant plants some which flower in spring, some that will look good in winter and some that will thrive in hot summer conditions with occasional rain. And just because you do not necessarily live in the Cape or have yet been hit as severely as that region has been by recent droughts, you are almost certain to live in a part of the country – probably a summer rainfall area – where drought has recently stalked the land. This past summer season, while very hot (the hottest on record in many places) had sufficient rainfall to ease the drought in most regions and areas that were suffering badly, the relief was temporary and not entirely complete. The forecast is that the creeping permanent drought conditions, interspersed with extreme rainfall events such as Gauteng and the greater Durban area and other parts of KwaZulu-Natal have most recently experienced, is likely to set in virtually across all of South Africa. So if you read this as the thunder booms and the rain pours down in some up-country part of South Africa (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter, since this is a global issue), realise that what we are discussing in this article is coming to your region sooner than later. The only real exceptions to this general rule are areas where climate change is driving multiple high-rainfall events, like the Caribbean islands hit so hard by a series of hurricanes, presenting an altogether different set of problems, albeit fundamentally related to what the Western Cape is experiencing due to overall global warming, which despite all efforts to date continues to gallop way. Back in 2013 the planet passed the symbolically important milestone of 400 parts per million (ppm)of CO2 which is already well over the previously set level in the low 390ppm range required to stop and/ or slow global warming. Currently we are sitting at 403.3ppm, which does not seem like much of an increase, but climate doesn’t work in a linear fashion.
In fact, past certain ‘tipping points’, climatic and other complex systems with feedback loop processes in them, take on a life of their own and increasingly run away from our ability to have an effect on them until such time as there is nothing we can do to stop what has been unleashed.
This is more or less what has happened with regard to global climate.The increasing carbon dioxide levels have driven ever-larger areas of the North Polar region in particular to get much warmer – by 7ºC or more on average –each summer, leading to massive releases of the much more aggressive and longer-lived greenhouse gas methane from where it had been trapped for millennia in the now defrosted ‘permafrost’. At current rates, and with a recalcitrant and retrogressive US President and his climate-denialist environmental appointee, there seems no real prospect for putting the climate change genie back in its bottle. In other words, what we are enduring now is just the beginning, with much more to come.
So, back in the garden, and wherever you may find yourself in South Africa or elsewhere, best then to bite the bullet, realise the inevitable and sooner than later, switch to local indigenous and drought-resistant or even semi-desert-adapted plants to beautify your space.
It may sound horrible to gardening traditionalists but it really isn’t – many water-wise gardens are actually very beautiful. And there’s a major upside – upkeep for busy urbanites of water-wise gardens, sans water-hungry and quick-growing plants and ever-thirst lawns, is literally at a minimum. Green things in such gardens grow, albeit slowly when little rain falls, and bloom in their season, fulfilling the essential role of a garden which is to keep alive within us some aspect of connectedness to our natural environment.