The water shortage on parts of St Helena is now so grave that the supply to many homes may simply be cut off.
People in Half Tree Hollow and nearby areas have been warned: “This is serious. We need some substantial rainfall now.”
Engineer Martin Squibbs told Saint FM listeners: “We will just run out of water quite soon. If we have no water, we can’t distribute water.
“We have had some rain but it’s not made any difference at all – so too little, then the hot sun comes out and dries it all up again.
“We are now in a graver situation. We are starting to think maybe we will have to shut down the water treatment at Red Hill.”
Harper’s Earth Dam was completely empty, he said.
Workers have been desperately drilling bore holes to seek out new underground supplies. Two are producing water, but not enough to meet the needs of people in the most populated part of the island.
Other areas still have a healthy supply, including Levelwood and Jamestown. But Martin, the operations director for the newly privatised Connect St Helena, said transporting water from those places would not work: the demand was too great.
He said there were no plans to reduce consumption by cutting off the supply at night.
“If people know we are going to shut off the water overnight they will just fill up containers, and probably pour them down the drain in the morning,” he said. “So we are not going to do that.”
He praised residents who had heeded calls to cut down on useage – but his praise made it clear that some people have been selfish.
“Thanks to everyone for restraint now because I had been having reports of people using water to water their gardens – water we can’t really afford to use.”
He said the normal flow from the Red Hill plant was about 400 cubic metres per day, but only 335 cubic metres were sent out on 15 May 2013, showing residents had woken up to the crisis.
The crisis has come about after months of unusually low rainfall.
Reservoirs should have been close to full by Easter, but the Red Hill reservoir was at only 42% of its capacity. A “voluntary” hosepipe ban was imposed for Half Tree Hollow and the west of the island.
Heavy rain over Easter failed to make a difference because it was absorbed by the parched ground.
Streams were drying up in Sandy Bay, but it was possible to move water around in by vehicle because the quantities involved were small. That continues.
The implications for St Helena’s anticipated tourism boom are not clear. Shelco, the company that wants to build an eco resort at Broad Bottom, has talked of re-planting the island’s lost cloud forest to encourage higher rainfall – adding to the existing efforts of the St Helena National Trust.
Martin said: “Let’s not be doom and gloom here. We are drilling for water. We have had some success, we’ve had some failures.
“We have drilled at Molly’s Gut, which is a bit far away but possibly we could move water from Molly’s Gut.
“We have drilled opposite Philip John’s place on the road to Scotland. We tried to pump water there but the pump broke down last week.
“We didn’t hit water until we were about 30 metres down, which is quite a distance, but then we thought we could achieve about 100 cm a day.
“If we can raise some water from the ground we can extend the life of our reservoirs.”
He said cutting off the supply could harm solar heaters – : “the panels on the roof that rely on water flowing through them to warm up and so on. If we get air in those water heaters it will cause a lot of problems so I want to avoid that.
“Householders now need to think about the implications. If we can’t get any rainfall, we are going to shut the water off. Be in no doubt about this.”
Westminster meeting: The water crisis has been raised in a private meeting at the Houses of Parliament this week. Concerns were also raised about democratic weaknesses, Freedom of Information issues, and lack of effective scrutiny of government spending. It was reported that no value-for-money reviews had been conducted on St Helena for several months because the island had been without a chief auditor.