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Capetown: God Is Water

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"God is water," says Caron Von Zeil of Capetown, South Africa. "Life exists because of water." She is laughing but more than half serious. She believes that the ancestral memory of our species lies in the water molecules that make up over sixty percent of our bodies. More emphatically, she believes that water is sacred.

Caron is as rooted to the southern tip of Africa as are the remnants of old forest in the narrow canyons on Table Mountain, which rises at the boundary of her city. She can trace her lineage, a mixture of Europeans and slaves, back to the 16th century. She added to the mélange by marrying a Jewish boy from Montreal, Joel; they have two kids. "During apartheid they would have called me white," she says. "But really we're all colored. Even farther back, we're all African. And we're all here because of water."

Caron's heritage puts the history of water in stark relief. The Dutch East India Company founded Cape Town as a restocking station for ships rounding the southern tip of Africa on their way to the Orient. The bay around which the city curves offered poor moorage. It takes a pounding during winter storms. But into that bay poured a bounty of fresh water that could refill the holding tanks on the ships, quench the thirst of a land based community of tradesmen and dockworkers, and sustain a rural community of farmers to provision both. The first environmental law in the Cape colony, Placcaat 12, was passed in 1655. It said, "Niet boven de stroom van de spruitjie daer de schepen haer water halen te wassen en deselve troubel te maken." The vernacular version minced no words: 'MOENIE IN DIE WATER KAK NIE.' Do not make sh-t in the water.

Cape Town owes its liquid bounty to geology. On Table Mountain, rainwater seeps down through porous sandstone until it hits an impenetrable layer of granite. Then it flows into the great semicircular basin that holds the city. At various points it hits obstructions that force it to the surface where it flows out freely as gravity fed springs or artesian wells. In the language of the very first pastoral humans on the Cape, the Khoi, the place was called Camissa, the place of sweet waters.

Caron would like to see it called that again. She is a person of big dreams, with a sort of crazed tenacity to match. After messing around in high school, she decided in her twenties that she wanted a college degree, so she went back and sat through remedial courses with students four years her junior and then got herself a degree. Later, when her son was still a toddler, she handed off primary parenting to Joel, and got a masters degree in landscape architecture. Some people use their thesis to design a garden or park. Caron wanted to design a town center that would bring together the black and white halves of a divided village. When the local leaders weren't interested she moved on to something bigger: uncovering, literally, Cape Town's ancient waterways.

On our last day in the Cape my husband, Brian, our daughters, Brynn and Marley, and I join Caron and Joel at their home for a late dinner. Outside it is pouring rain, the kind that soaks you between the front gate and the door. When we arrive, the dining room table, which quickly gets transformed to make room for us, is laden with rolls of translucent paper through which one can glimpse architectural angles, bits of sloping land and plants and spurts of water. After eating, we bully Caron to give us the fifteen minute version of whatever is in those papers; she hems, haws, and procrastinates but finally boots up her laptop, and once she gets going there is no stopping her. There is no fifteen minute version. An hour later Brian drags us away. Joel has long since tucked their kids into bed, and Brynn is half asleep on my arm. But Marley and I are peering backwards over our shoulders at the computer screen as we move reluctantly toward the door.

In Caron's rolls of paper and her laptop the past becomes the future. She pulls up a picture of a small building buried in a hillside, painted white, with a thick vaulted roof. "This is Stadsfontein, one of the original springs that fed the colony," she says. "It's still there, fenced off." Inside is a pool of pristine, potable water, continuously replenished by the flow gushing from the hillside. From this and similar springs, over 2.5 million liters per day pour straight into the storm sewer. The springs were abandoned when CapeTown, now city sized, began channeling water from reservoirs in the agricultural areas to the north.

Caron pulls up another picture, this one of flat stones in a grassy field. It is where the washerwomen did their laundry before a public wash-house was built. Archeologists had a hard time finding it, because streambeds change and they had to figure out where the water flowed three hundred years ago. Local lore speaks of one Abdul Malik, owner of a magic ring, now lost, that guarded its wearer against harm. (This Malik may be the same person as the local saint 'Sayed Abdul Malik' of spiritual medicine, who is buried in the Kramat along the Slave Walk.) Caron shows us pictures of rings recently excavated from the site. One is in the shape of a serpent. Could it be the ring that sparked the legend?

Another picture. This is the original shoreline, now buried behind a kilometer of "reclaimed" land. Construction crews getting ready for the World Cup next month just uncovered an anchor the size of Caron's kitchen and fragments of the original docks. Further digging around the area sliced through tidy brick wells and foundations, a world of centuries-old infrastructure. The foreman is hoping to rebury it all fast, before Heritage authorities can get involved.

Layers of maps follow the images: contours, water, vegetation, population density, day/night usage. The patterns alternate with etchings of slaves carrying water in buckets, beautiful open canals and an old gracht with an arched brick ceiling like those under the city of Amsterdam, stone lined irrigation channels colloquially known as "lei-water slote" at the edges of cropland. In the maps, a blocky path from the foothills to the sea emerges over and over. Its crude geometry is divided into seven "precincts."

This is the heart of Caron's dream; to bring the precious water that flows into the sewers under those blocky street-bounded chunks of earth back into daylight, one precinct at a time. To reclaim the liquid serenity that Cape Town once shared with Amsterdam. To build parks and walking trails and water features and plaques that draw together tourists and residents in all shades of "colored" to revel in the city's history and future, but most of all in the life-giving beauty of water. At the top, the plan includes gravity fed fountains and streams. At the bottom an open canal with stepped banks is lined with restaurants and boutiques, like the Seine where it flows through the heart of Paris. In Caron's sketches, today's parking lots that had once been town squares, gathering points centered on artesian wells, become public spaces again.

It all would sound about as realistic as creating a faery wolde downtown, except for three things. One: Before and after pictures of Seoul, Korea, show where a gridlocked freeway was removed and replaced by a thriving public space along a landscaped river over the course of just four years. Two: The mayor is convinced already. Three: Caron is a force to be reckoned with. When their daughter, Zahara, developed bacterial meningitis at twelve days of age, Joel and Caron watched her body shudder through seizure after seizure. They didn't know if she would end up blind, deaf, or unable to think. For the next two years she couldn't eat, and Caron fed her through a tube every twenty minutes round the clock, ten milliliters at a time, which was all her body could handle. (Today Zahara's biggest challenge is that she can be outrageously intense. Hmm.)

When I met Caron, she asked what I do with my time. "She rants," said Marley, who was listening in.

"Spell that with a 'w,'" I joked, "w-r-a-n-t." I at least wanted credit for ranting in writing.

But Caron just nodded as if ranting were a normal occupation. "It's being a mother that makes you rant," she said, speaking partly for me, but more for herself. "The kids are what make you throw yourself in, send pushy emails to the mayor, ask for money from people you've never even met . . . ."

I wonder if, also, it is being a mother that makes Caron believe that God is water -- not a superman who builds and destroys and offers eternal prosperity in cities of gold, but a persistent, penetrating presence that nurtures life one milliliter a time.

Though she may not admit it, Caron never abandoned her first thesis project, the one about bringing together a divided community by creating common ground. Water -- in the form of a misty lake, a rolling river, crashing surf, a lilting fountain, a lily pond, a burbling brook, a drop of rain on dust, or a glass of water on a hot day -- is poetry in any language. Our need for water binds us.

We have been warned that in the worst sense possible, water will be the issue of the coming century: as aquifers collapse and cities drain the rivers dry, competition for water will lead to corporate grabs, and blood feuds, and border wars. But Caron, the mother, sees a different future, one in which water unites us. Projects like hers are concrete symbols that showcase what has been and what can be possible. The rest is up to us. Even in the drawings of her sunlit waterway, Caron is reluctant to sketch out the possibilities too clearly -- they need to come from each precinct she says, "People in each place need to express their own vision."

Indeed we do.

To follow this project visit Reclaim Camissa on Facebook.

During the first half of 2010, writer Valerie Tarico is traveling with her husband and two teenage daughters. Missives from the Southern Cross are her occasional dispatches from the road.

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