The water shortage on St Helena has grown more serious – and it appears some householders are losing the resolve to use less of it.
Reservoir levels have begun to go down in the worst affected area, above Half Tree Hollow, after a major operation to transport water from other parts of the island.
That means the island may not have enough stored water to cope when the dry season begins in September or October – potentially stretching into March.
A government bulletin issued on 16 July 2013 said:
“The continued unseasonably dry weather on St Helena means that the water situation in affected areas remains serious.
“The headline message this week is that following the sunny weather and an increase in water consumption in the Redhill distribution zone over the weekend, we are starting to draw down on our supplies in the Redhill system.
“This means we are slowly losing stored water. Consumption in the Redhill zone in June was an average of approximately 260 cubic metres per day. In July so far, it is at an average of about 280 cubic metres per day, and continues to creep up
“As a consequence of this, the Harpers 2 (Earth Dam) is now being used to feed Scotts Mill reservoir, which now holds just 13 days’ supply.
“This serves as a reminder to the public that the situation in the affected areas remains serious. As a result of increased consumption, we are now drawing down on the reserves that we were previously building up.
“Residents served by the Redhill distribution plant are once again urged to continue to lower their water consumption. The island as a whole is reminded that the hosepipe ban is still in force.
“We must all maintain our efforts to reduce domestic water consumption wherever possible and stretch this resource, until we return to normal rainfall patterns.
Piping of additional water to the Scotts Mill reservoir continues to be necessary, until we receive significant rainfall.
“The laying of pipework and preparatory work for the pump, to transfer water from Levelwood into the Hutts Gate system, continues.
“The latest weather forecast indicates a 10-20% likelihood of rain over the next three days, followed by drier weather later this week.”
St Helena’s drought shows no sign of easing, with the reservoirs serving the most populated island filling too slowly for restrictions to be lifted. It follows months of hot weather and little rain.
One senior source told St Helena Online: “The sun has emerged again and the forecast is 0% chance of precipitation for the foreseeable.”
A government statement, issued on 2 July 2013, said: “The continued dry weather on St Helena has meant that the water situation in affected areas remains critical.
“Due to the irregular rainfall we are currently experiencing, our reservoirs are filling slower than required and, although stored water levels at Redhill have slightly extended to around 14 days of supply, water levels remain exceptionally low.
“Only the piping of additional water to Redhill is maintaining our volumes.
“Pumping from Hutts Gate, via Grapevine Gut, to Scotts Mill reservoir continues this week – supplying roughly a day’s consumption (at the reduced level) for each day’s pumping.
“Over the weekend, 900 cubic metres of water was pumped from the Longwood area to Redhill.
“The supply from Grapevine Gut is now very low and pumping is being managed to balance the demand on the Hutts Gate reservoir for both the Hutts Gate and Longwood supply area and the Redhill zone.
“Preparatory work, including vegetation clearance, to pump water from Levelwood into the Hutts Gate system has also started – in advance of pipe and pump deliveries on the RMS St Helena.
“Residents served by the Redhill distribution plant are once again thanked for their continued reduced consumption and are urged to continue to lower their consumption.
“The island as a whole is reminded that the hosepipe ban is still in force – every effort to reduce water consumption must continue in order to stretch the water supplies until we receive some substantial rainfall.
“Bowsering and pumping from reliable sources clearly has implications for the totality of St Helena’s water supplies. Water is ultimately a finite resource on this island and we thank all districts for reducing their water consumption.
“Connect Saint Helena Ltd continues to treat all leaks and burst pipes as a priority.”
Water consultant Graham Doig will return to St Helena in early July 2013 – but his main job will not involve tackling the island’s severe shortage of supplies.
St Helena Government has revealed details of his visit in response to a report that the island does have enough water, despite the current drought – but not necessarily where it’s needed.
His prime tasks are to prepare the island’s treatment works for upgrading. His visit is part of a programme that also includes ending the supply of untreated water to some homes.
The Castle said: “Graham Doig of Fairhurst is next coming to St Helena on 3 July 2013. He will ensure that essential works are carried out to the four water treatment works in advance of the refurbishment contractor arriving on island in September.
“The water infrastructure project includes for the supply of treated water to all communities.
“There is an infrastructure programme that includes water projects. It is a rolling programme spread over several years.
“The issue of water not being where it is needed is being addressed by looking holistically at the problem.
“One solution is to drill deep boreholes, but with the volcanic origins of the island it is difficult to predict where underground water might be found. There have been successes in this approach but a final decision has not been taken.
“We are in the information-gathering phase at the moment and once sufficient information has been gathered, the Water Resource Plan will be finalised and agreed with St Helena Government.
“The current plan is to supply Sandy Bay from the refurbished Levelwood water treatment works.
“The Woody Ridge area will be supplied from a refurbished Hutt’s Gate water treatment works.
“Plans are not yet finalised for supplying treated water to the Blue Hill distribution area.”
Graham may or may not have the gift of making water run uphill, but he’s a top performer when it comes to running uphill himself. In January 2013, he set a new record for ascending the 699 brutal steps of Jacob’s Ladder. Sadly, he will arrive on the island just too late to take part in the 2013 St Helena Festival of Running.
Drought-stricken St Helena is not short of water, the island government’s consultant has insisted – despite homes on the island being close to losing their supply.
UK expert Ed Connon said: “There is enough water on the island – but it’s not necessarily in the right places.”
A major operation to move water to the most populated part of the island has been under way in June 2013, with Saints urged to cut consumption drastically to avoid running out.
The crisis has come only 11 months after St Helena Government declared that the island had “sufficient existing water sources to meet demand for the next ten years.”
Now Martin Squibbs, the man quoted in the government press release of 4 July 2012, has resorted to importing water from Ascension Island to avoid cutting off the supply to taps in Half Tree Hollow and nearby areas.
But water has been flowing freely through Jamestown and even overspilling from a reservoir at Levelwood – while reservoirs in Harper’s Valley have been emptied.
In the 2012 press statement – on efforts to drill new boreholes to meet post-airport demand – Martin said:
“A water consultant from Fairhurst was appointed in September 2010 and one of his first tasks was to carry out a water resources study and produce a water resources plan covering the next 20 years.
“The study concluded that there are sufficient existing water sources to meet demand for the next ten years or so, but there is a need to identify new sources to enhance the current sources supplying the Redhill and Hutts Gate water treatment works.”
But on Monday 3 June 2013, Martin said the island could never fully protect against an “Act of God” such as a severe drought. He compared the island’s crisis with major flooding in central Europe that authorities could not prevent.
Saint FM has reported that the island had seen two other droughts within 20 years, with water supplies to Longwood being cut off in 2006.
Mr Connon, the Fairhurst technical director behind the St Helena report, said: “I am quite happy with the statements we have made.
“As Martin has said, it’s about the amount of rainfall, or lack of it. It is an unusually low amount of rainfall that you have had.
“We will be looking further into the recent drought in terms of looking at the rainfall figures and seeing how that affects the overall water resource position. You get a bit more data and it informs your position a bit better.
“There has been a lot of investigation and a lot of boreholes being drilled.”
He said a colleague from Fairhurst would be arriving on the island shortly to oversee an upgrade to all the water treatment works on the island.
The drought has highlighted the fact that ten per cent of homes on the island, in Blue Hill and Sandy Bay, still receive untreated water – with the risk of it becoming contaminated at any time.
In another statement issued in July 2012, the government said bringing all the island’s domestic water supply up to World Health Organisation standards – meaning it must be treated – was “a priority”.
Mr Connon said: “One of the directions we were given was to deal with the untreated water supply.”
But he added: “Having spoken to some of the residents out there, they don’t want their water treated.”
Fairhurst says its water division “delivers reliable and cost-effective advice in specific areas such as… dams and reservoirs, water supply, sewerage, and waste water treatment.”
It was hired to advise on two projects. The first was a management shake-up that led to the newly created Connect St Helena taking over responsibility for the water supply, less than two months before the crisis broke.
“The second comprises a programme of water infrastructure improvements to meet the immediate needs of existing users and provide a sound basis for further upgrading works,” says the company’s Capability Statement.
“Fairhurst was appointed to assist the St Helena Government in all aspects of the sustainable water management project,” it says. “Key tasks include the assessment of
natural water resources and their capacity to meet the longer term demands from population growth and tourism.
“We are also advising on the development of a 20‐year asset upgrade plan and will design a package of improvement works to provide a consistent and high quality drinking water supply throughout the island.”
The Fairhurst report has not been made public by St Helena Government.
Fairhurst was also paid £6 million to design and install the successful “hairnet” that stops rocks rolling down on to Jamestown’s wharf, with more than 100,000 square metres of steel netting. The company website reports that the project was named International Project of the Year at the Ground Engineering (GE) Awards 2010.
Distressed cattle have used up all their spare body fat as the drought on St Helena has left them without adequate grazing.
Island vet Joe Hollins has been handing out feed and salt-licks to help the island’s largest livestock herds survive.
He said: “Most of the cattle have depleted their body fat, and in the worst hit areas have eaten into their muscles.
“Although handouts are really a thing of the past, we’ve gone as far as to import fifty 40kg bags of cattle feed and distribute them free of charge among the larger herds – just something to tide them through until the grass grows.”
He acknowledged smaller producers with only two or three animals might ask why they were not also receiving free feed.
But he said: “We have limited funds and can only do so much.
“Our philosophy is that the smaller producers will do their best to get by cutting fodder and supplementing their few beasts, whereas with the large herds this becomes a logistically difficult task.
“The cattle cube (bagged feed) is no substitute for true fibre anyway – it is a concentrate to supplement calorie intake, vitamins, minerals and so on.”
Members of the Deadwood Syndicate of smallholders have been harvesting flax and grinding it down to feed their animals – using machinery salvaged from the days when flax was grown as an export, in the 1960s.
It provides fibre to be broken down in the rumen of cattle – one of a cow’s four stomachs, used to break down food into “cud”.
Joe said: “A healthy rumen requires a good input of fibre to keep the population of digesting organisms thriving and multiplying.
“They in turn provide a good source of readily digested protein as they die naturally in their billions and overflow into the fourth stomach – the true stomach much like ours.”
Joe said he was once set an essay at university, describing what would happen to the body of someone stranded on an island with no food, but plenty of water. After converting fat and then protein to carbohydrate, the process was: “Go slightly mad and hallucinogenic, and ultimately die. We’re just trying to keep the cattle somewhere in the middle of that process until nature can pick up where it left off.”
It’s one way to cure a leaking reservoir: simply run out of water.
Three pictures taken by Martin Squibbs bring home the scale of St Helena’s drought crisis the way no words could.
One shows Harper’s One reservoir, high in the hills above Jamestown – empty but for a thin layer of reddish sludge.
It’s meant to supply the Redhill treatment plant, which in turn pumps water into the taps of every home in Half Tree Hollow, Cowpath, Ladder Hill, Red Hill, Sapper Way, New Ground, Clay Gut, Pounceys, Kunjie Field, Scotland, Plantation, Cleughs Plain, Rosemary Plain, Francis Plain, Crack Plain and Guinea Grass.
There is water at Scott’s Mill, some of it coming from springs and upland streams, and some of it from bowsers and tanks that have been trundling back and forth from Jamestown, where a steady flow has run down the valley throughout the 2013 drought.
For Martin and colleagues at the newly created Connect St Helena – which only took over the water supply in April 2013 – the drought has been an opportunity to repair and clean out the reservoirs.
At a briefing on Monday (3 June 2013), he said: “We have been concentrating up to now on securing the water supply. We did take the opportunity of maintaining the Harper’s Earth dam and we have taken out as much sediment and infestation as we can there.
“Harper’s Three needs repairing. We can do that.
“Harper’s One is leaking. We have known about that for some years now. It’s very difficult to repair that leak because it comes from the surrounds of the embankment there.
“What we have done is captured that water and directed it to Scott’s Mill reservoir.
“Leakage from pipelines exits also. It’s a question of degree and how much resource we put into that.”
At an earlier briefing, on 31 May 2013, Martin said: “When I came here we were cleaning out reservoirs that had never been cleaned before, because the story was, ‘What do we do with the fish?’
“I said I don’t care: I want that reservoir cleaned out.
“There was fish droppings, there was leaves rotting, there was all kinds of problems.”
He told the story to show that storing water in open “surface” reservoirs was not ideal.
Rain showers over the past two days have not lessened the possibility of a partial domestic water shutdown on St Helena, as stored water levels remain exceptionally low.
Water consumption from the Redhill treatment plant increased yesterday to 350 cubic metres, up roughly by 100 cubic metres compared to the weekend.
This is disappointing given the seriousness of the water situation, and residents are urged to continue to use as little water as possible. It is vital that all of us continue our efforts to conserve this precious resource.
This raised consumption, balanced against rain showers and water trucked and bowsered to the Redhill plant, means that we still only have eight days’ of supply remaining.
The long term weather forecast from Ascension Island indicates only light, intermittent rainfall over the next couple of months, which is not sufficient to reverse the current problem.
So the Contingency Planning Group (CPG) will continue to mobilise physical resources this week in anticipation of a possible shutdown or reduction of domestic water in Half Tree Hollow, Cowpath, Ladder Hill, Red Hill, Sapper Way, New Ground, Clay Gut, Pounceys, Kunjie Field, Scotland, Plantation, Cleughs Plain, Rosemary Plain, Francis Plain, Crack Plain and Guinea Grass.
Yesterday (Tuesday 4 June 2013) saw 70 cubic metres of raw water transported from Jamestown to Redhill by the transport and fire teams, plus 190 cubic metres of water bowsered by Basil Read [the airport contractor] to the plant – bolstering our stored water at Redhill.
This work will continue over the coming days, and we will continue to refine our use of additional water resources.
Our thanks go to the roads, transport, fire, and Basil Read teams – and we ask the public for their continued co-operation with the truck and bowser traffic.
The contingency plan would see public water tanks at key locations in the affected areas, plus other public sources (for example, in Jamestown) to ensure that the public could access the water they need. A Control Centre, which will be manned during the day, evenings and weekends, is now in place and ready, should shutdown go ahead. Any reports of water wastage will be investigated by the police.
People on St Helena could have woken up much sooner to the impending threat of losing their water supply, according to engineer Martin Squibbs.
He told island broadcasters that the reality did not strike home until daily briefings on the crisis began – with parts of the island down to only six days’ supply.
In late May, a senior official had privately warned St Helena Online that people did not appear to understand the seriousness of a situation that could become “unpleasant”.
Martin said people had now heard the message. “There’s also trust that comes into this,” he said, “and I think the public are now aware.
“Our reservoirs in the Harper’s Valley are very nearly empty. That’s visible and it can be seen. Once that message got across we saw the reduction in consumption.
“If we keep the taps running there is a perception that the water is available.
“If we run out of water and we have to put tanks on the streets, that’s a very clear message that, hang on, we are really struggling here.
“If you had cut your consumption two weeks ago then it might have been different.
“What we need is reduction in consumption and we are getting it. People are trusting us to tell them the truth. I think we are doing that.”
The crisis has also caught officials unprepared, despite months of public comment about the hot summer and low rainfall.
In May, the French consul, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau published a table on his blog showing the island had only received just over a third of its average rainfall in the five months to the end of April.
Martin said at an earlier media briefing that the island’s only water-carrying bowser had been scrapped some years ago because it was mounted on a 1950s Bedford truck, which was considered outdated.
Chief of police Peter Coll said: “Had we had a bowser that was effective and roadworthy and working then we would have been in a better position now.
“So clearly that’s going to be part of the discussion about what we need for the future.
“We are not panicking. We are having to move pretty quickly and put some responses in place.”
Last week a search of the island was made for water tanks that could be mounted on vehicles to transport water.
Peter said: “I don’t think it’s particularly good that we have put in plastic containers and creating those sort of things.
“Clearly that’s something we have got to be better at in future, and we will be better at. But we have to deal with the situation we find it ourselves in now.”
The cost of protecting St Helena from future droughts may be unaffordable, water engineer Martin Squibbs has warned.
He said: “Some things are just not manageable. We are dependent on things we can’t really foresee, let along make provision for.
“We just don’t have the money, and DfID [the Department for International Development] are unlikely to give us the money.
“So we have to do what we can with the resources we have.”
He cited current severe flooding in Central Europe to argue that the forces of nature can simply overwhelm resources.
He said the 2013 crisis was an opportunity to take stock of the island’s ability to cope and make improvements.
But he added: “If the reality is that if this is an event that doesn’t happen very often, it’s an exceptional Act of God or call it what you like, then maybe we have to look at the contingency plans and not alleviate the root cause of problems, because we can’t.”
At a press briefing on Monday, chief of police Peter Coll was asked about the cost of bringing in pumps and piping from Cape Town.
He replied: “I don’t think we’ve even costed it out yet. That’s part of the exercise that’s taking place. But there will be a cost to pay, of course.
“This equipment clearly needs to be there for the future.”