Well Well Well – A Natural Resource Lost
A guest post by Edmund Arozoo, once of Jalan Hock Chye, who now takes a look back to his kampong days from Adelaide.
I have recently returned from a tour of the northern remote arears of South Australia. It is usual for the motels in these arears to have warning signs over the sinks cautioning guests not to drink water from the taps as the supply is usually from bore water.
As described on the SA Health website:
Bore water is groundwater that has been accessed by drilling a bore into underground aquifers (water storages) and pumping to the surface. Aquifers may contain chemicals and micro-organisms that are potentially harmful. Some of these chemicals are naturally occurring (such as those present in soils and rocks) while others are a result of contamination.
Confined or deep aquifers are usually deep underground which helps protect the water source. These types of aquifers are usually covered by more than 20 meters of rock or clay which act as a natural filter preventing microbial contamination. Unconfined or shallow aquifers are not protected by thick layers, because they are closer to the surface above and are susceptible to both chemical and microbiological contamination.
Thus while bore water can be used for cleaning and showering it cannot be used for cooking and drinking. Water from rainwater tanks is used for this.
This brought back memories of my kampong days in “Owkang” where at one stage in the past the whole area depended on underground springs to provide water for all purposes. Virtually every house had a well or a large well was shared by a group or cluster of nearby houses.
From memory the whole area around my kampong seemed to be “springy”. You did not have to dig deep to strike an underground spring. I clearly remember the little pits we used to have for burning garden waste and rubbish. The pit was essential to ensure that the fire was confined and did not pose a threat to the attap roofs of the surrounding houses. Gradually these pits used to become shallow and required a “re-dig” to maintain this confinement of fire and ashes. Often, when the dig was in progress we would strike water seepage. Also occasionally as kids when we roamed the area during our carefree time we would come across a natural spring by the side of a lane.
The wells somehow seemed to be connected by underground streams. I remember how we used to be puzzled by the appearances of fish in our well. We knew our neighbours kept fishes in their well to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. We did not need fishes because our well was in constant use.
Our well also underwent regular cleaning after a few years. A couple of odd job men would be employed to do this. After draining as much of the water in the well using the buckets one of the men would descend the well using a wooden ladder and scrape away at the silt that had built up through the years. The slit too was brought to the surface via the use of buckets. It was during this process that when we peered down the well we could see the supply source of our water. I clearly remember seeing water spouting out from one side of the well wall very similar to that from an underground pipe. In my mind then I could imagine an underground stream with water flowing thorough to all wells around that area. And that seem to explain the presence of fishes in our own well.
Once the well was cleaned and the water level reached the normal level my grandmother who lived with us used to do the cleansing ritual of dropping in a palm sized piece of alum (Aluminium sulphate) into the well. Alum I learnt later in my Chemistry classes is used as a flocculating agent in the purification of drinking water by creating sedimentation of the particles and rendered the water crystal clear. These days the side effect of exposure to alum is debatable.
The level of water in the well fluctuated with the seasons and the rainfall. After days of heavy rain the level would reach almost ground level and we had the task of keeping the level down by scooping up buckets of water and emptying the contents into the drain. In the hot dry months the level would drop quite a bit. But during all of my years of living there thank goodness our well never ran dry.
The method of drawing water at our place was with a metal (galvanised iron) bucket attached to a fibre rope with a big knot at the free end to prevent the rope from slipping though our hands. Some wells had a pulley system hung across the well but that meant having to reach out to the middle of the well when the bucket was raised to drag the bucket in while still holding on to the end of the rope. This task was very difficult for kids with our shorter arms. In contrast at our place when we kids reached the height that enabled us to look over the concrete ring perimeter of the well we could draw water on our own. Often the rope would slip through our hands and we would see the bucket sinking to the bottom. But at hand there would always be the bamboo pole with a hook attached to one end. Retrieving the bucket was a simple method of using this pole and hooking on to the bucket handle and then slowly raising the pole with the bucket dangling from the hook.
One of the chores assigned to us as we got older was to fill up the big earthen jar in the nearby bathroom. Folks of my generation would remember having to use a ladle to scoop up water from these jars to take a bath. Water from the well and the jar was usually cool and thus baths were quick and very “refreshing”.
With communal wells it was common to witness neighbours bathing in the open dressed in sarongs and often having conversations with whoever else was around the well!
Water used for drinking was boiled in pots using the charcoal stoves which always stayed alight with glowing embers to enable quick rekindling of the fire. But waiting for the water to boil took a while. Then with the introduction of thermos flasks the hot water was stored so that there could be instant access when needed. This was great if you needed a hot drink late at night (Holicks or Ovaltine …)
On reflection well water was truly Nature’s gift to everyone in the kampong. We did not have to pay a cent for the usage and there was abundance for everyone.
I sometimes wonder what has happened to this underground water course in the current area around Houggang with the area now well built up. We had an incident a few years back around my current house where a neighbour in the next street below ours had flooding in his garage. This never happened before and there was an investigation by the local council into the cause. Modifications were made to all our houses on the street to ensure storm water drainage adhered to the Council regulations. But this still did not stop flooding until it was finally discovered that one of the newly built houses on our row required deep excavation to remove huge rocks before the concrete house footing could be laid. This resulted in change in course of the subsoil drainage. And following a few days of wintry rains the water took the new course of draining into the garage. Provision had to be made to address the problem and thus stop the flooding.
So where have all the undergrown streams in Owkang gone? Maybe like the kampongs they are lost forever!