Maverick Citizen: Drought

Eastern Cape: ‘The worst drought in a thousand years’

By Estelle Ellis 10 October 2019
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The Nqweba dam outside Graaff-Reinet has dried up completely. (Photo: Estelle Ellis)

Cape Town may have avoided Day Zero, but there are parts of South Africa that have not, particularly several Karoo towns in the Eastern Cape that have run out of water. Boreholes and dams have dried up, taps have run dry and the rain stays away, reducing farms to dust and threatening communities. Maverick Citizen spent the last week in the towns of Graaff-Reinet, Bedford, Makhanda and Adelaide. Many residents wonder why Cape Town’s water crisis got national attention while they are getting very little.

Weather forecasters are not predicting much rain for these areas before December, with climatologists saying the weather is becoming more difficult to predict and that the prospects are “dire”. With no rain or other solution in sight, donors have stepped in to drill boreholes and provide drinking water for communities hit by extreme water-shedding.

Kelvin Klaas drinks from a water container before carrying it home. (Picture: James Fowler)

It is 2pm on Tuesday afternoon when traffic officials lead the Gift of the Givers’ truck driver, Rashied Prins, and the big interlink truck to the uMasizakhe township in Graaff-Reinet. “Water! Amanzi!” the traffic officer shouts over his loudspeaker. People come running. They are in overalls and aprons. Some have babies on their backs.

A man wearing a red Father Christmas hat wakes up from his nap in his yard. He gets up slowly. He walks towards the truck. Women, children and men in overalls overtake him.

Close to the truck, a child is playing in the dust.

“For this place,” project manager Ali Sablay explains to his helpers, “you give out water to here by the ‘T’ of Toll Free on the truck’s side. Four packs and six packs.”

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Gift of the Givers Project Manager Ali Sablay helps hand out water in Bedford. Photo by James Fowler

Sablay has been working in the Eastern Cape since February. His phone never stops ringing.

Samantha Graham-Maree, who has been fighting the cause of the Graaff-Reinet people in Parliament, looks at the line forming for water. She has just had surgery and cannot drive but she has hired a driver for the day to be in Graaff-Reinet.

Since the main supply dam outside the town, the Nqweba Dam, ran dry, the town had to rely on boreholes for its water supply. But the boreholes only yielded enough water for 80% of the nearly 40,000 people in the town.

“It has been diabolical,” Graham-Maree said. For the past few weeks, the town has been struggling for water, with the municipality blaming Eskom and the heat for frequent and prolonged water outages.

“I can’t go to church any more,” Mongezi Monyeni, 68, said. “My body stinks. I can’t serve the Lord Almighty like this. I go to work and people gossip because of the smell. I just want to wash. It is difficult for us. We are slow. We only get far behind in the line. We often wait for water and then there is no more.”

Zelunzile Menzi, 60, said even when the municipal tankers still came around they had to wait two hours in the sun for water. “And you can’t drink it.”

Johane Martins, 50, said the water shortages are just one of the things that have forced the community to its knees.

“There used to be little bits of work for us with the Community Works Programme, but no jobs are coming. The dam is dry. The boreholes too. In 16 years that I have lived here, we never had it this tough.”

A nurse comes to ask for drinking water for her patients at the Marjorie Parks TB Hospital.

“They have to take a lot of pills. We only have a bit of water in our rainwater tank,” she said.

Sivuyike and Vuyani Masango celebrate the arrival of water. Tuesday, 1 October 2019. Photo by James Fowler.

Sivuyille Masango, 24 and his brother Vuyani, 26, arrive with a wheelbarrow to collect water for themselves and their neighbours.

“We are 15 people living in a house. It has been tough. The water from the municipality stinks and it is salty. You can’t drink it. It has been two years that we have struggled like this.”

“The dentist at the clinic told me the water has made my teeth go bad,” Kelvin Klaas, 35, said. He just returned from work and takes a long drink from the five-litre bottle of water handed to him. “Look,” he said showing a yellow, gap-toothed grin. “My teeth are really bad.”

“I have a cup at home to measure drinking water for everybody,” Patricia Appolis, 32, said. “I have three children. They are 11, five and one years old. I am not working and if the water runs out you have to go buy at the store. It is R7 a bottle. Two five-litres must last us a week.”

At the townships furthest from town, Geluksdal, Kroonville, Asherville and Santaville, a little boy spots the Gift of the Givers trucks.

“Water, water, water!” he runs through the streets shouting. “Lekker, lekker water!”

Two boys help each other carry their water home. Picture by James Fowler

People come running with old two-litre bottles, one-eared cooking pots, drums, broken buckets and small glass bottles.

In less than five minutes a long line has formed.

“The water here is rotten,” Lola Nissan, 53, said. “You must leave it for a few hours after it came out of the tap – just for the smell to go away. We haven’t had water all week. We are really struggling.”

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The water from residents’ taps in Boog Street, Graaff-Reinet. Picture by James Fowler

Many people are still in their pyjamas, even though it is late afternoon. “There is no water for them to wash,” Corene Conradie from the Graaff-Reinet Water Crisis Group said. It is her grandmother’s 82nd birthday and she is texting family members to convey her congratulations as she is busy helping with water.

“The water has been brown since February. Two months ago the dam dried up. It was on 1% for two weeks.”

In February, Conradie saw a woman collapse on the sidewalk. “I took her to the hospital. She was dehydrated. Her whole family got ill after drinking the water,” she said. “They couldn’t afford to buy water.”

The Beyers Naude Municipality was delivering water but it was undrinkable, she said. “We wanted to take hands with them. There were farmers who had good water and were willing to donate. They complained about paying drivers overtime and said the trucks were not working. We are really struggling to get answers.”

In Boog Street, Jason Moos runs to the truck. In his hand there is a white bucket filled with brown water that smells like sewage. “My mother said I must come show you what our water looks like,” he said.

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Graaf-Reinet residents queue for water. Picture by James Fowler

Up on the hill the community broke open a drain a few weeks ago to get access to fresher water. They descended on the drain with buckets and bottles, pushing one another out of the way. On Wednesday, the drain was covered by the municipality and locked with a heavy iron plate and lock.

Close by at the municipality’s depot there is a single water tanker. The driver comes to ask for work. “I am doing nothing. I want to help.”

One man comes to fill up beer bottles with water. “We used to joke that if the water was bad, we will just drink beer. Now we don’t make jokes about water any more. We are just gatvol.”

  • We will publish a number of stories on the drought crisis in the coming days. MC
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