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Wild Water

Originally published in The Nature of Cities

In Cape Town, we thought we had domesticated water, but we had only tamed it, and taming can come undone.

In the city the water goes neatly, invisibly through underground pipes. It performs pretty tricks obediently in the fountains and it submits its rivers to discreet concrete channels that run unnoticed by highways, silently whisking the water out to the sea. For many in the city, water comes out of a faucet, clean and guaranteed.

We had been lulled into hypnotic tap-water love. We filled our lives with the tamed water: swimming pools, fish ponds, saturated lush lawns.

In the Southern Suburbs, we had been lulled into hypnotic tap-water love. We filled our lives with the tamed water: swimming pools, fish ponds, saturated lush lawns. Water provided the very soundtrack of our lives—the soft white noise of sprinklers and faraway lawn-mowers, the shrieks of children in the swimming pools.

Swimming pools are a perfect example of how tamed water can quickly become wild. They need to be constantly tended. Scooped daily of leaves, refreshed with chemicals, topped-up with the hose. For all intents, this is dead water, but water that must be worked at to be kept dead. Without attention it rebels with algae blooms—becoming green, soupy, alive—a new ecosystem where little things can begin to live.

But there can be wilder water still: in between the blue swimming pools there is secret water, water that comes up like weeds, and is often as unloved. There are blocked drainpipes that hold old water as baths for the birds and breeding ponds for mosquitoes. The murmuring complaints of streams diverted underground in the stormwater drains near the mountain.

The occasional flooding of the Liesbeek River, asserting its ancient territory and depth. The excitement of a burst pipe in the street. Sometimes water long gone leaves a stain; a built-over pond where small frogs come back each year, looking for lost water.

And then there is rain, the traveller, the wildest water of all, to whom all places are alike. It is through rain, more precisely the lack of rain, that we came to know water as wild again.

There has been a drought in the Cape, one that has silenced the sprinklers and made the lawns dusty and brown. The city told us ‘Day Zero’ would come – the day when water would not come out the taps. The drought has acquainted us suburbanites with the weight of water as we carry buckets from the shower to water the garden. For the first time in over a hundred years, people queue to collect water from the mountain streams.

Water is no longer guaranteed and anonymous, but something that comes from somewhere, something that is precarious and precious.  It brought the outside into the city – faraway dams came into focus and we learned their names, and then what they looked like at their bottoms.

The drought awakened something ancient, something that scratches in the back of the mind about there not being enough. It also harkens to a future time when the nipping sea waters might rise to take the city again. We walk unwillingly into water wilderness; we have stepped outside.


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