Frantic water scramble as Gqeberha’s Day Zero looms

Impoverished residents in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro are spending stressful days trying to get enough water for their households as well as their gardens and livestock.

Tens of thousands of Gqeberha township residents have been abandoned by the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, which has no plan to provide them with water just days before Day Zero is predicted to hit on 17 June. Unless it rains heavily for several days, 40% of the metro’s residents, or 512 000 people, will not get water from that date, when the first of its dams will start failing.

But residents of the townships of KwaNobuhle, Jabavu and Chris Hani say they have been unaware that Day Zero is so close and have managed to store only a few buckets of water in preparation. They say they have received no communication from the metro about how to access water after 17 June. The metro also has not set up any water-harvesting systems to catch rainwater that may fall before then and stationed very few 5 000-litre water tanks in public areas. 

Many township residents already have no water in their taps and get only a few litres a day from trucks that quickly run dry. They have no confidence that the metro will be able to truck in water supplies after Day Zero.

“We are struggling in South Africa, especially the Black people,” said KwaNobuhle resident Lulama Mama, 54. “When Day Zero arrives, it means we will actually not use water. My area was already cut off for two weeks last month. I went to other areas with buckets to collect water,” said Mama. 

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Those who are without water already have become anxious. They’ve survived the past month by driving around nearby Kariega in search of water and taking it home in buckets. Those who don’t have vehicles are at a disadvantage.

The water cutoffs so far have been disorganised, says activist Phumla Runeli. In some areas, water returns to the taps at 11pm or 3am but only for a few hours, and only after several days without.

Runeli lives in a street where one side has no water at all while the other side still has some flowing from taps. Those who are fortunate to have water share with their neighbours. Residents in her street have received assurance from their ward councillor that families who are sharing water will not incur high bills. 

But she is concerned that after Day Zero it will be a case of every household for itself. “Right now we have an approach where nobody with a tap that still has water can say ‘you can’t come and grab some water’ to someone else from the community. But after Day Zero, it might be that nobody will help each other,” said Runeli. 

Counting the cost

Another problem for residents of communities without water is that empty 20-litre containers cost about R60 each. This is unaffordable, so many people are storing water in two-litre cooldrink bottles. Runeli’s kitchen is packed with more than 100 of them. It takes a long time to fill up enough two-litre bottles for household use at a water truck or from one of the few working taps, and Runeli says those waiting in line easily get annoyed with each other.

Resident Thembinkosi April says the water provided in Chris Hani shack settlement is not drinkable. “The water is not clean, so we only use it to do our laundry and flush the toilet. We must boil the water before consuming it because it is murky. We are asking the government to intervene,” she said.

Nomthandazo Jonas, 62, walks the streets each day carrying four empty five-litre bottles that are heavy to take home when they are full. “I wake up very early in the morning looking for those taps where I can get fresh water. Those taps have water at 5am only and then they are out,” she said.

Impoverished residents who grow their own food have faced a double blow. There is so little water that there’s not enough for people to bathe, let alone for their backyard vegetable plots or livestock, which are a vital supply of food and income. 

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New Frame reported recently how tens of thousands of vital litres are lost daily because of leaks in the water system that the metro has not repaired. In one part of KwaNobuhle, both sewage and water pipes are leaking and a mixture of this foetid liquid runs freely in the streets. Runeli says backyard vegetable growers have no choice but to collect it for watering their crops. 

Livestock are also drinking it, with devastating results. Several cows owned by Mama, a small-scale urban farmer, have died since they began drinking from the leak.“I don’t know why the municipality cannot fix this sewerage leak,” he said. There is no way we can stop raising livestock because this is our life and our livelihood. We get no support from the government at all. As soon as our cattle drink this water, we find they do not last long. We are really struggling and we would be very glad if the government can assist us with clean water.” 

Mama only has five goats left and had to move his six cows to another part of Kariega where there is still water. Like most residents interviewed, he has only stored about five 10-litre buckets of water in preparation for Day Zero – not enough to survive for long.

Uncaring metro and government

Another small-scale urban farmer, Thembani Johnson, 72, has been farming without land in the township for 15 years and his water has already been cut off. “I’m trying to survive, but I have only four animals left out of 20 because of theft and illness from the sewage water. Day Zero will be a huge problem. The municipality doesn’t worry about old people like me – we will carry those heavy buckets from the water truck,” he said.

“Some of them don’t even have grandchildren who can fetch water and they must go themselves, with buckets and two-litre bottles. Just imagine this old man [having to do that],” said Runeli, pointing at Johnson.

Stephen Nkomo Primary in Gxiya Street, KwaNobuhle, has a flourishing garden of leafy green vegetables. These are a critical supplement to the school feeding scheme ingredients received from the government. Recent rains were enough to offer the garden a short reprieve from the looming food and water catastrophe, though they didn’t do anything for dam levels. But when the garden inevitably dies owing to the lack of water, the pupils will no longer get fresh vegetables. 

Small-scale farmer Boysie Vena, 52, has lost over 10 goats after the water shortage meant the animals had to drink the sewage-infested water. Before the water crisis, the Vena family say, they made R3 000 every year from selling goats. It was a vital part of their income, but the water shortage has wiped it out. “The dirty water affects the internal organs of the livestock and ends up killing our stock,” said Vena. 

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The farmers keep their livestock in an open field in Jabavu township where corrugated iron sheets, branches and nets provide them some shade. They say they were already struggling before the water crisis because the government does not support them by providing vaccinations, feed or dip, which they believe has caused a few pigs to contract swine flu. 

Thembelani Douws, 28, has opted to keep a 1 000-litre water tank near the stock, filling it up now and again with water from five-litre bottles. Douws has been livestock farming for over two years and says the water restrictions have caused great problems for him as a young farmer. “We do not get any funds from the government. We have tried knocking at their door but nothing happens. I have to transport litres of water with my vehicle to the stock. The tank is not built to collect rainwater, which makes it difficult for me,” said Douws. 

Metro spokesperson Mthubanzi Mniki said he was unaware of the four-week water outage in Chris Hani and other parts of KwaNobuhle and would alert the water services department. “The residents must formally submit their complaints to their ward councillor,” he added.

He said all residents in KwaNobuhle received regular communication on water from the metro through ward councillors.

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