“I don’t remember the last time the taps had water,” says Sifiso Ngidi, 54, a resident from Egudwini, a rural village near Amanzimtoti in KwaZulu-Natal. “It’s become normal [for us] to be without running water, a basic human right. We have been stranded in this village as if we are not worthy to live. We are forced to pay for water trucks, which are meant to deliver water to the community on a regular basis, for free.”
The residents of Egudwini have been without clean drinking water for years. In fact, it has been so long that no one can be sure of the date. This has forced them to rely on either rain or water trucks, which cost them up to R400 a tank. For sanitation, they mostly use pit latrines that they constructed in their yards themselves. Similarly, they installed the taps in their yards, but these have been dry as well.
There is one small river in the area that some residents use for washing. It also provides drinking water for their livestock. This water source, however, has been deteriorating in quality, partly owing to high levels of pollution from a nearby landfill site.
Underdeveloped rural areas such as Egudwini, Mfume and Nkwali on KwaZulu-Natal’s South Coast have been completely neglected in terms of water provision. The free basic water policy of 2001 was supposed to ensure a limited supply of water for all households free of charge, but many impoverished communities are forced to pay for clean water.
South Africa was one of the first countries in southern Africa to constitutionally guarantee the human right to have water provided. As Section 27 of the Constitution states, “Everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water. The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of these rights.”
But despite this, many residents in Egudwini, Mfume and Nkwali continue to struggle without water. “Things were a lot better when we were part of the Ugu municipality,” says Egudwini resident Sboniso Mayisela, 48. “Years later, we were told that we were now under the eThekwini municipality. And although this shouldn’t have been an issue, it became a nightmare.
“We have often made complaints to our local councillor and induna, but they pay no attention to us. The councillor just drops the phone whenever we call about this ongoing issue. Now, when we see the municipal cars which are meant to be fixing the issue, we just lose hope because they have been doing these patrols for years. They have not fixed anything. In limbo is where we live. We survive through grace, and money. The little I get from my odd jobs each month, I use it to call the water truck, and if I do not have money I am without water.”
Battle for survival
Egudwini has a high rate of unemployment. For food, many households still rely on hunting and small-scale farming, and the money they get comes from child and old-age grants, or remittances from relatives living in urban areas.
“Water is both a human right and a valuable commodity. Water supply to the Egudwini community has not been reliable since I arrived here with my family in 2017,” says Mayisela.
“Linked to water supply is poor sanitation. The communal standpipes in the area do not receive water for long. There is always a regular breakdown of the electric engine that is used to pump water. One of the major challenges in this area is infrastructure failure, and the municipality does not seem to have any form of any accountability or answers.
“We are people demanding recognition … We do not have access to safe water and sanitation services, and this failure by the municipality to extend water and sanitation services to villagers places people at risk. Women walk long distances with buckets on their heads to fetch water. How is this a reality in democratic South Africa?”
Sustained access to water contributes positively to public health and wellbeing and being able to make a living. Sustainable water management, sufficient water infrastructure and access to a safe, reliable and affordable supply of water and sanitation are vital to improve rural livelihoods.
No change in sight
“Water is recognised as a human right that all of us must have. But it is definitely not a privilege available to all South Africans. It’s saddening to know that we continuously vote with no change in sight,” says Egudwini resident Khumbuzile Nyembe, 49.
She says the area has been plagued by regular disruptions to its water supply for years. “The water truck is meant to at least ease the situation, but it doesn’t come for weeks. When it does show up, it only goes to certain homes.”
Nyembe moved to Egudwini to have more space for a food garden as a means to feed her family. She says the lack of water has made it difficult for her family to survive. “The government is constantly encouraging families to plant their own food, but how are we supposed to grow food when we struggle for drinking and cooking water?”
Delisa Ndlovu, 55, says she moved to Nkwali a few years ago so she would be able to farm and sell her produce in the city. In her yard, she has planted banana, mango and avocado trees. With water so scarce, she cannot plant anything else.
“I wish I could be able to plant and sell vegetables such as cabbage and spinach to also sell and feed my family. But we do not have that privilege. The small amount of water we have, we have to keep for drinking. For everything else, we rely on rainwater and the rivers nearby, which have become highly unsafe.
“The government insists on hygiene and cleanliness. We must wash our food, hands and clothes to prevent illnesses. Now with Covid-19 as a daily threat, water is supposed to be prioritised, but how are we supposed to wash our hands and keep clean without water?”
So near and yet so far
Another resident, Dumisani Dube, 42, who shares his home with eight family members, says they often use their child grants to pay for the water truck. “Every time there is rain, we run like mad because we have to make sure we fill every bucket with water. We are living a different life here, cast away and aside, even though we are accessible and live close to towns and cities such as Amanzimtoti. It’s not like we are out of reach, because when the politicians want our votes they are able to come here.”
Dube reuses washing water to flush the toilet as he is limited to two buckets of water a day. Discussing his concerns, he becomes emotional and says, “This is not life. Somiwe [we are thirsty]. We are also fed up with living like this. We are cast aside as if we do not exist. We barely have enough money to survive and now, as a double burden, we have to accept that we don’t have access to water. Is this the freedom we fought for? Is this the value of our votes?”
Residents say they have tried many avenues to have their grievances addressed. “We even came together as the women who are at home when the children are off to school,” says Bongiwe Dube, 66. “We are the ones who experience this type of poverty. At the end of the day, when the children come back home, they need to eat, they need to wash and they need to bath. All of this requires water.
“A few months ago, we came together and decided to send the younger women to the nearest offices after numerous failed attempts to reach the councillor, who is often unreachable and unfazed by our complaints. We don’t even know where he lives anymore. He’s completely forgotten about us.
“The young women, about five of them, walked the long distance to the office in Mfume to request that we at least get a truck that is meant to provide us with water. After pleading with them, they finally allocated one truck. It is meant to at least give us water once a week, but it only comes when it wants to. If we had enough money, all of the elder women here would be at the offices of the eThekwini municipality to demand answers. Maybe then we can finally be recognised.”
The councillor of the area, Brightman Ndlovu, admitted that he was aware of the water cuts and the impact they have had on the residents. But he declined to answer any questions and said the eThekwini municipality should respond.
Msawakhe Mayisela, the municipality’s spokesperson, said in a statement, “The area is frequently affected by power failures, which limits our ability to pump water from various pump stations that supply water to this area.
“Due to this, it takes more than a week for the supply system to fully recover after a power outage since demand is now higher than it was designed for. We are aware of the issue and water tankers are sent to the area as per need. There is currently a formal contract to purchase and install standby generators for all pump stations that is currently under way.”
This offers little comfort to Lindiwe Dube, 77, and Thembani Msomi, 56, who both have trouble walking and struggle to collect water from the river, or from the truck when it arrives.
“We can’t keep track of the truck because one week it arrives and then it disappears for another. Our councillor once promised us a communal tank, but that was just a promise. After that we never heard anything from him again.
“Some of us have JoJo tanks, which came with the RDP houses, but that’s also an issue because only a few received those houses. In this area, I am the only one with an RDP home and so all my neighbours depend on my tank for water. That’s how we survive: we help each other,” says Msomi.