March 22 is World Water Day, and this year its theme is ‘groundwater’. Are we even aware of what that is? It is not just puddles on the ground in rainy spring weather!
Before we got piped water in the modern era, many settlements got their water from wells. They dug deep through the surface soils to reach the groundwater that flows beneath. This hole then had to be lined with stones or supported in some way to stop the soil falling in. At the top there would be paving or a wall to make it easier for those fetching water so that they did not get stuck in mud. There was also a contraption for lowering and raising the bucket, usually by winding the bucket’s rope around a thick horizontal pole.
Wells depicted in art
If you want to visualise these, try searching ‘Woman at the Well’ in Google images. This turns up an array of pictures through the centuries as artists try to visualise the story of Jesus talking with the woman of Samaria at a well (as told in the Bible). It was depicted in mosaic by Byzantine craftsmen with an (ugly) metal contraption over the well, obviously the modern convenience of the time.
Later artists from Northern Europe showed wells with pretty tiled roofs, and thick round walls. Mostly the water containers are pretty one-handled pottery urns of a Middle Eastern shape. Buckets, where glimpsed, are sturdy wood ones bound with a collar of metal. I discovered why when I tried to make a toy well to show children: an empty bucket, filled with air, tends to bounce on the surface of the water, so a heavy bucket is preferable.
How deep is my well?
When you see an ancient well, perhaps at an old castle, the irrepressible urge is to throw a coin into it to listen for the plop as it hits the water. This indicates how far down the water is. I guess the well-users of the past also used to peer in anxiously to check the water level. In drought seasons, if it got too low, there was a risk to their households and flocks.
The modern equivalent to this anxiety is to visit the local reservoir and see what the water level is. When I lived in Southern Africa, a drought-prone region, this was quite a common social activity, sometimes combined with a picnic. When a town, such as Gaborone in Botswana, depends on one reservoir, one needs reassurance that the water level is not sinking too much. Where there has been more water engineering, in more developed regions, such as Kwazulu-Natal, there may be several reservoirs which are linked by huge pipes, with outflows adjusted according to water availability.
Boring for water
In Southern Africa, one hears more about boreholes rather than wells. These are holes drilled deep down to enable farmers to utilise groundwater. Beside each borehole there is a windmill used for pumping up the water. In Botswana, as cattle-farming became more lucrative (with beef exports from Lobatse to the EU from the 1970s) the water engineers started to worry about the number of new boreholes permitted in the dry Kalahari: they are using up groundwater that collected there in ancient times, and is irreplaceable with dwindling rainfall of modern times.
Agriculture under stress
Is this what is happening in many other regions of our planet Earth? Are we actually using up our water for life? There is certainly anxiety that some regions are becoming dryer, even too dry for the agriculture they currently support. Will it be possible by next century to produce wine in the Cape, South Africa, or nuts in California?
“At least 2,600 well-dependent households experienced water shortages, and roughly 150 small water systems needed emergency assistance during the 2012–16 drought. As water levels continue to decline throughout California – thanks to the combination of heat, drought, and over-pumping groundwater aquifers – this remains a significant problem for at-risk communities.”Public policy institute of California
Nuts are such a lucrative Californian export that orchards continue to be planted, in spite of possible water shortages.
“In the end, if the gap between water supply and water demand continues to grow, California will have to make fundamental changes to agriculture in a way that ensures both a strong agricultural sector and a healthy environment. The conversation about how to do this must include a discussion of incentives, disincentives, regulatory and market conditions, and impacts to all affected parties. In the end, it is about far more than just almonds.”Pacific Institute
Dealing with drought: reduce your consumption
During a rainy spring in Kent, it is hard to envisage water running out in South East England. But the prediction is for more drought this summer, when the groundwater will not be sufficiently replenished. The new reservoir near Canterbury will not be ready for some years, so expect more hosepipe bans and, gardeners, get your water butts in position.
Because piped water is so convenient, we have become more and more careless in the use of it. We no longer peer anxiously into wells, so just have no idea of groundwater levels. But, because of predictions of water shortage, official policy is that in future the average daily use of water must reduce to 125 litres per person compared to the average of 150 litres per day which we consume currently.
So, how are you going to achieve that in your household?