‘Day Zero in Nelson Mandela Bay is metro’s fault’

The collapse of water infrastructure in the Eastern Cape’s largest municipality has left residents angry as their taps are dry while water runs down the streets.

Hundreds of people roam the streets of KwaNobuhle, the largest township in Kariega, Eastern Cape, desperately looking for water tanks or trucks where they can fill up their empty containers. Day Zero has already arrived for many residents of the Nelson Mandela Bay metro who are completely reliant on water being trucked in since it stopped flowing from their taps three weeks ago.

The municipality says 40% of the metro, which covers Gqeberha, Kariega and the small town of Despatch, will hit Day Zero on around 13 June. But water still runs from taps in central business districts and affluent suburbs, while thousands of litres leak into streets all over from pipes that have not been maintained.

The water crisis has hit after a prolonged drought left the major dam, Kouga, and the smaller Loerie, Groendal, Churchill and Impofu dams practically empty. The municipality gets 190 megalitres of water a day from the Free State’s Gariep Dam, 400km away, via the Orange-Fish tunnel and the Fish River. But the total daily consumption in the metro is 285 megalitres a day, leaving a shortfall of 95 million litres. The municipality has urged residents to use water sparingly so that 55 million litres a day can be conserved. 

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The newly formed iQhumrhu Lokulwela Ingcinezelo Yamanzi, a water crisis committee, says the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality is to blame for the water crisis as the many leaks in Gqeberha and Kariega are never fixed. 

Gqeberha activist Siyabulela Mama, a coordinator of the committee, says people need to drive the response to this crisis. “We came together as movements of the working class to discuss what we can do around the issues of water. We took up the responsibility this year to move the campaign against Day Zero and the water crisis.” 

Cutoffs and restrictions

Benjamin Mbeki, 45, lives with his two children in Zwide, Gqeberha. He is one of many residents whose water meter has been fitted with a restriction device that only allows the household 50 litres of water a day. On top of this, Mbeki says, the water is often cut off without notice at inopportune times of the day and over weekends. 

“Being without water means not being able to cook, bathe and wash your clothes. The municipality gives you a letter of service charges. There is a lot written there saying that you should pay, but the water is off in the morning and during the day. 

“People work during the week and only find time to do laundry over the weekend. They need to wash school and work uniforms. How are people expected to wash their clothes when the water is closed during the day?”

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In many townships in the metro, added Mbeki, broken water pipes are not fixed despite being reported to the municipality. “If you go to Missionvale now, you will see water flooding the streets. There’s a burst pipe that has not been fixed for weeks.”  

Mbeki also complains that water provision seems to have become privatised. “We asked the municipality about solutions after they informed us that the dam levels were at 14%. They were mum and didn’t respond. Now we are seeing private companies coming in to sell water and the municipality is allowing this.”

Affecting health

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), an activist organisation that advocates for quality health services for all, says the water crisis has severely affected chronic patients by forcing them to default on their chronic medication such as antiretrovirals and tuberculosis medicine. 

“This is not because they want to, but because people are without water and you cannot take your medication without water. Our concern as well is that clinics are closing early because of the lack of water,” said TAC member Leon Jack. 

He questions why the municipality had not taken steps to avert Day Zero. “The TAC does not understand why the municipality does not invest more money in building dams so that we don’t run out of water when there’s a drought,” he said.

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Marcus Solomon, who founded the Children’s Resource Centre and is also acting coordinator of the Right to Food campaign, fears the government will bring in the army to suppress township residents once Day Zero arrives. 

“Water is the first food and there is no food without water. The government has collapsed and we must mobilise. This scenario will soon be faced in every city in the country as local governments have failed to maintain and properly manage dams and water systems,” Solomon said.

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