Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Heatwaves and drought

According to the weather forecasts, today will be the hottest day ever recorded in Pretoria, with temperatures of up to 41 degrees C, which is about 105.8F, for those who use that measurement.That is the kind of thing you expect in a Greek summer, not a Gauteng summer.

I can only remember experiencing temperatures higher than that twice in my life — once was in Pietermaritzburg in the summer of 1968/69, when the temperature in town was 108F, and we drove up to Hilton and Howick to enjoy the comparatively cooler weather at 102F (about 39C). The other time was in Shayandima in Venda in 1984, when it was 42C — also about 108F.

We have also been having the driest summer in years. Usually by this time we are battling to keep the lawn cut, but there has been no need to mow it this year, because the grass has not been growing. I don’t know whether it is also a function of the drought, but we haven’t seen any sign of migrating butterflies, which often pass at this time of the year.

Near Senekal in the Free State, this summer.

Near Senekal in the Free State, this summer.

Other places have been suffering much more from the drought than we have. Rain in Lesotho brought some relief to Aliwal North, where it was reported that the Orange River had dried up. This coming weekend our son Jethro is planning to drive to Senekal in the Free State with 2000l of water in his bakkie. The drought has been pretty bad in Senekal, and water has to be brought in from elsewhere. They have a Facebook page to draw attention to their plight.

It might be easy to attribute the drought to global warming, or to freak weather conditions. Perhaps it is linked to El Niño, as many have said.

But I am old enough to recall the drought of the summer 1965/66, which in my recollection was just as bad as this one. I wonder if it is significant that it was exactly fifty years ago. Back then no one talked about El Niño — perhaps the link had not been discovered by then. Weather-tracking satellites were relatively new technology, the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, had been launched less than 10 years previously.

But it was hot, and dry, and the mealie crop was failing.

At that time I was working as a bus driver in Johannesburg — a temporary job for the summer vacation. And I was extremely lucky, for a temp, to draw a regular shift for a month; office hours with Sundays off. That was something only senior staff could dream of. The reason was that the regular driver had gone off for his summer holidays, and it didn’t take long for me to find out why. The route was central city, plying between the magistrates court and the old general hospital on Hospital Hill, through the middle of town and in the summer heat, when everyone was doing their Christmas shopping and the traffic jams were unbelievable. The schedule allowed 20 minutes for the journey, but it sometimes took longer than that just to traverse a single city block. In the week before Christmas we were sometimes lucky to complete three of our scheduled eight trips. People could have walked to their destination faster than riding on the bus, but riding the bus, though slower, was preferable to the heat and crowded pavements.

AEC Mark V bus belonging to Johannesburg Transport Department, Summer 1965/66

AEC Mark V bus belonging to Johannesburg Transport Department, Summer 1965/66

The heat!

Every day the temperature was over 95F (we measured such things in degrees F back then). And I was driving an AEC Mark V, like the bus in the picture, with the driver’s cab right next to the engine. And when it was standing idling in the traffic, the fan wasn’t turning fast enough to cool the water in the radiator, so the radiator would boil over 3-4 times a day, filling the cab with steam and making it like a Turkish bath.

There were water restrictions in cities, more severe than anything we have today. Up till now, the only restriction in Tshwane is that we are not allowed to use hosepipes, so we take our dirty bathwater out in buckets to water the garden. We have cut down to having a bath once a week, even though in the summer heat one gets pretty smelly.

But I don’t think the heat and the drought this summer are any worse than they were in that other summer 50 years ago. It seems to be much the same. Let’s face it, South Africa is a dry country, and we have always had periodic droughts. The only thing one can do is be prepared for them.

One other thing is different.

Back in 1968 we went for a drive from Pietermaritzburg to Howick because the latter was 4 degrees cooler at 102F. Yesterday we drove 100 km to Brixton, Johannesburg, for the Epiphany Service, and the car was air-conditioned, as cars weren’t usually, back in 1968. Now one can go for a drive even to somewhere that isn’t any cooler, just to cool down inside the car. But the car air-conditioner is a heat pump, just sending the heat inside the car to the already hot outside, and so contributing to global warming.

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4 thoughts on “Heatwaves and drought

  1. Thanks, Steve. I love old stories like this. 🙂

    I remember harsher water restrictions than this in my lifetime as well. I think new technology is making things easier. But there’s a downside to that as well – when I think back to my childhood and we had water restrictions, they made the news, and EVERYONE was talking about them.

    Now, people don’t seem to be as affected, everybody just goes “Oh, it’s not so bad”, and nobody seems to take much heed. WE certainly haven’t changed our bathing schedule, for example. People (us included) have become complacent in the twenty-first century, and we’ll all act shocked and surprised, and blame everybody but ourselves, one day when there’s no water left. 😦

  2. bigbluemeanie on said:

    I was taught under a Geography curriculum that was introduced in South Africa in 1973. Our 1970s text book explained El Niño events and their impact on Africa (in terms of there being less rainfall in Southern Africa during the cycle, more rainfall elsewhere, etc). At that time the impact of El Niño events on the northern and eastern hemispheres were not understood so it only identified impacts in Africa and South America. Incidentally the 1970s text book also described the greenhouse effect and the implications of increased CO2 from human industrial activity, but it did not link this global warming with more frequent and stronger El Niño events. In any case this increase in El Niño oscillations has only become apparent since then, looking at events in the last 50 years. I also understand that between the 1970s and now a large corporate lobby has grown to counter the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change, and they peddle disinformation.

    • I remember reading about El Niño for the first time in the 1970s. In the 1960s its effects may have been known to meteorologists, but journalists did not make much of it. I seem to recall that in the 1965 drought the journalists paid more attention to the theories of one Gert Yssel, who ascribed the drought to the wearing of miniskirts, which were in fashion at the time. Some of us thought it was more likely to be caused by the Double V (Verwoerd/Vorster) who ruled the country back then.

      • bigbluemeanie on said:

        Interesting. A few years ago the South of England was flooded and this was blamed on the legalisation of gay civil partnerships. It was some kind of sign of God’s displeasure. Now God is apparently more relaxed about that issue, because the floods in the North of England in recent weeks have been seen as a punishment for providing asylum to (a miniscule number of) Syrian refugees. Who’d have thought that God didn’t want us to be loving and kind to our neighbours? We’ve been reading the bible all wrong.

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