The indignity of life without water

Residents say it’s ‘inhumane’ to function without water as it strips people of their dignity and makes life much harder during a global pandemic.

Residents of Browns Farm in Philippi have been without water for a month. For years, taps in the area have intermittently run dry, especially on weekends. But four weeks ago, they stopped working altogether. 

The residents now depend on people from neighbouring townships to help them.

This situation, says resident Nandi Vanqa-Mgijima, has become unbearable. They have to choose between using water to drink or for the toilet.

“I procrastinate when I’m about to go to the toilet [because we have no way of flushing]. This is very inhumane,” she says.

The residents say water in their neighbourhood often ran out. 

“We are used to this situation. Sometimes you sleep on an empty stomach because you will find dry taps when you are about to prepare supper,” says Nomntu Hada, 68, who has lived in Browns Farm for more than 20 years.

8 March 2021: Nomntu Hada and Nandi Vanqa-Mgijima face another day struggling to find water in their neighbourhood.

The area, which now comprises about 300 houses, was made up of a few farms and used mainly for grazing in the early 1970s. But it grew rapidly in the late 1970s and early 1980s as people from the former Ciskei and Transkei homelands in the Eastern Cape settled in Browns Farm, Nyanga, Langa, Gugulethu and Crossroads.

As resistance to apartheid grew in the 1980s, Philippi became a place of refuge from the situation in the then Bantustans. More residents came to the area when farms in Mitchell’s Plain made way for urban sprawl.

Vanqa-Mgijima says she is used to not having water. “I moved to this area seven years ago. I have had this problem since then. [Water scarcity] is common life here.”

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Luyanda Nyathi, 53, who has lived in Browns Farm for five years, says, “The problem used to be common during the weekends. But it is every day now this month.”

Browns Farm is in the Philippi Horticultural Area, which contains the Philippi Aquifer, underground water the government was thinking of using during the severe drought in 2017, when the Western Cape was on the brink of running out of water.

“Being made to be waterless is the most inhumane treatment and service we are subjected [to] by this local state,” says Vanqa-Mgijima. “The position of women is worse off.” 

No water but City installs pressure meters

The City of Cape Town did not respond to queries, but in a press release dated 7 March, the City said its water and sanitation department “will be conducting zero pressure tests on the main water supply to Browns Farm and Philippi, which will result in the disruption of the water supply on Friday, 12 March 2021 from 10:00 until 17:00”.

Zero-pressure testing is part of the installation process for pressure management technology, which apparently reduces the possibility of pipes bursting and water being wasted. “Tests are done to see if there are any unmapped inflows that need to be taken into account before smart pressure-reducing valves are installed,” the statement reads. 

8 March 2021: Nandi Vanqa-Mgijima checks a tap for water.

Residents were advised to store water in clean containers and to close taps.

A similar release was issued on 26 February. Vanqa-Mgijima says she was told about this only after she made a number of enquiries and reported the matter to the City of Cape Town.

“I told them that we the poor and working class of kwaBroweni, eKokorotyi in Philippi have been without water since last week. I then received on Monday, 1 March, this media notification dated 26 February. All those I have spoken to have tried their best to assist me but their efforts were fruitless because we are still without water and those water tanker trucks never pitched up. 

“Without water we are exposed to [an] unhygienic situation … We still have this pandemic around us. 

“The situation in our homes is unbearable. The area stinks and definitely the smell is from unfinished toilets, etc. We are really being failed by the local, provincial and national state. Definitely in white and middle-class areas this isn’t the norm – and I talk from experience,” she says.

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Residents say it is impossible to practise the washing required to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Browns Farm resident Celiwe Mini says, “We have not washed our hands for a month. How can we prevent Covid? It stinks here. We cannot afford disinfectants.”

She says the situation has been particularly tough on her 74-year-old diabetic mother. “She finds it difficult to take pills. She does not go to the toilet regularly as she is supposed to because there is no water. And my four children go for days without washing although they attend school.”

The City came to install water-management devices instead of turning taps on, Vanqa-Mgijima says. 

Pointing at a newly installed blue device, she says: “Look at this. This is their response to our crisis. These [devices] are used for water rationing. How can they put these things in a waterless area?”

8 March 2021: Nandi Vanqa-Mgijima shows a passerby the new water management system the City of Cape Town installed outside her house.
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