Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Eastern Cape

Human Rights commission to probe violations as Eastern Cape municipalities fail to provide water

Parts of Lingelihle Cemetry where the Cradock 4 were buried is permanently under sewage. (Photo: Supplied)

The South African Human Rights Commission has launched an investigation into the water and sanitation services provided to Cradock, Middelburg and Komani in the Eastern Cape after an initial investigation found that it constituted a ‘prima facie violation’ of residents’ human rights. The investigation is the latest twist in two decades of desperate efforts by residents to stop the collapse of services in the three towns.

Nearly 20 years after the water provision services were taken away from local municipalities in Cradock, Middelburg and Komani in the Eastern Cape and given to the Chris Hani District Municipality, water services have deteriorated to such an extent in the area that the South African Human Rights Commission is launching an investigation into the violation of the human rights of residents.

In a letter sent to provincial legislature member Retief Odendaal, the Eastern Cape regional manager of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) Abongile Sipondo, said their assessment of the situation issues has led them to conclude that the collapse of water and sanitation in the area constituted a prima facie violation of human rights and the organisation’s Legal Services Programme will investigate further.

A spokesperson for the national Department of Water Affairs, Sputnik Ratau, admitted that in recent years the Chris Hani District Municipality has “battled to sustain water and sanitation services in a number of their local municipal authority areas and prominent towns in their district.

“The most prominent of these towns are Cradock and Middelburg in the Inxuba Yethemba Local Municipality. There have been instances of the community in Cradock desperately trying to secure water from a handful of water dispensing trucks, while the Municipality was carrying out planned maintenance of their drinking water system. Further, in Cradock the wastewater treatment works is still not functional, neither is the Middelburg wastewater treatment works.”

Ratau said due to the national lockdown, work on these sites was halted for some months but it has now resumed.

He said the Cradock Wastewater Treatment Works were 60% operational and that work was continuing on the upgrade of pump stations. He added that the refurbishment of the Middelburg Wastewater Treatment Works will require R10-million, which has been budgeted for in the next financial year.

He added that while the national department was providing the district municipality with technical support they were also considering providing assistance with the supply chain procurement and financial management “as this is hampering the work done by technical members. That is a discussion that must still follow,” he said.

The communications manager for the Chris Hani District Municipality, Thobeka Mqamelo, said the municipality was responsible for water and sanitation for six local municipalities.

“We are aware of water and sewage challenges confronting all municipalities and these can be attributed to a variety of issues, ranging from aged infrastructure that the municipality inherited upon taking on the responsibility; population growth that exerts pressure on the already dilapidated infrastructure; rife vandalism and theft of municipal infrastructure (pump station elements) and illegal connections that were affecting their operations.

“All these factors hinder effective and sufficient water supply and sanitation provision services to communities that the district is charged with. The District Municipality is addressing sanitation issues confronting the Cradock area which continues to experience random sewage spills. A contractor was appointed to refurbish the Wastewater Treatment Works in Cradock with a focus on failing equipment and the work is on final stages, as part of our medium-term plan. Installation of some components which were sent for galvanisation will be undertaken as soon as these are received. These will assist to alleviate the spillages,” Mqamelo said.

“The Middleburg Wastewater Treatment Works and KwaNonzame Pumpstation are both currently dysfunctional due to serious vandalism and theft where critical elements are either destroyed or ripped off and stolen despite security measures. These acts are constantly experienced and affect the optimal functionality of the infrastructure. Currently, ponds are being utilised as holding points for the spills. However, due to high volumes of sewerage they are overflowing. 

“The district is exploring measures to upgrade security of infrastructure and in a process of acquiring services of mechanical and electrical contractors to effect repairs at the treatment works,” Mqamelo said.

Water and sanitation functions were removed from local municipalities in 2004 after a long and conflict-ridden process. The reason provided for the takeover was the “complete paralysis” of the water and sanitation function at local municipal level.

“Komani Wastewater Treatment works is also not optimally functional due to failing equipment. A Special Council sitting of 31 July resolved to reprioritise Municipal Infrastructure Grants and set aside an amount of about R14-million towards refurbishment of the whole plant. The project is expected to commence this month,” she said.

Mqamelo said cases were opened with the police but no arrests had yet been made. “It is only our suspicion that some of the items are sold as scrap and copper wires are a much sought-after target,” she said.

Mqamelo said cases were opened with the police but no arrests had yet been made. “It is only our suspicion that some of the items are sold as scrap and copper wires are a much sought-after target,” she said.

Residents in the district have had a long struggle to bring the crisis to the attention of the government.

Water and sanitation functions were removed from local municipalities in 2004 after a long and conflict-ridden process. The reason provided for the takeover was the “complete paralysis” of the water and sanitation function at local municipal level.

At the time the Inxuba Yethemba Municipality, under which Cradock and Middelburg fell, resisted the takeover, saying that they would lose a source of revenue, that the takeover would cause the potential disruption of services and that there was no proper consultation about the move.

High rates that were suddenly levied by the Chris Hani District Municipality were resisted by the business community, and eventually the ANC’s regional structures – the South African Local Government Association, the national and provincial departments for co-operative governance and traditional affairs, both the national and provincial treasuries and the Department of Water and Sanitation – were asked to intervene.

The situation was described during a parliamentary hearing as follows: “Tensions had developed and attitudes were hardened.”

The local municipalities lost the battle and the water and sanitation functions were transferred to the Chris Hani District Municipality regardless.

Several complaints followed. Municipal officials raised their frustrations about still having to deal with water issues but having no budget, and added that the Chris Hani District Municipality was constantly disputing their invoices, leading to long payment delays.

In 2015, Parliament accepted petitions from Cradock and Middelburg complaining about the collapse of the water services. This was roughly a decade after the Chris Hani District Municipality took over the function from the local municipalities.

“But our infrastructure is old. It was built in the 1940s and since then the town has developed quite significantly. Two or three new reservoirs were built but this was also in the 1980s. The town is more than 200 years old and there are many old trees and many pipes that are breaking,” Featherstonehaugh said.

At the time no water accounts had been rendered for a year and the frequency of water sampling had declined. Parliament heard that, following several complaints about the quality of the drinking water in Cradock, the waterworks were upgraded and water quality compliance was improved. At the time representatives for the Chris Hani District Municipality blamed the problems on inherited financial burdens, and subsequent delays in paying maintenance service providers leading to broken-down components of water infrastructure not being repaired.

During this hearing parliament also heard that the municipality had “insufficient capacity” to perform basic “general housekeeping” on water infrastructure.

Rika Featherstonehaugh, a long-serving councillor from Cradock, said the water problem in the town was a combination of many factors. She said as the Great Fish River literally runs through the town there is no problem with access to water and the allocation received by the town is sufficient.

“But our infrastructure is old. It was built in the 1940s and since then the town has developed quite significantly. Two or three new reservoirs were built but this was also in the 1980s. The town is more than 200 years old and there are many old trees and many pipes that are breaking,” Featherstonehaugh said.

She said authorities were warned as long ago as 2008 that the town’s wastewater treatment works were at 110% capacity. “Many new guest houses were built since then and the industrial area is very active.”

She said “masses of sewage” was currently running into the river and never coming even close to the wastewater treatment works.

“We are hearing infuriating things. The municipality will send a pump to Durban to be fixed while, as one of the biggest irrigation farming districts in the country, we have some of the country’s best pump engineers right here.”

She said the town was also concerned that if the massive sewage spills in the river continue, they would have a negative impact on the Great Fish River Canoe Marathon, an annual event for more than three decades.

“We want our water back. The sewage lines have been closed for as long as I can remember. I think the last time some of these towns were serviced was when we were part of the Transkei.”

“Our billing is a mess. We were told in 2014 that a system was implemented to assist the Chris Hani District Municipality to sort out its billing. We are now in August 2020 and it still hasn’t been done. In July they bizarrely started sending out water and sanitation accounts to farmers who are not receiving any water services. Their average collection rate is around 4%,” she said.

She said they have now reached the point where residents were collecting donations to fix infrastructure themselves.

Community leader in Komani, Zolile Roger, said water has become a very sensitive topic for the communities he served.

“Just yesterday I sent a message to the mayor of the Chris Hani District Municipality. I asked him: How long must we still suffer? We sometimes have water at 4.30am but by 9am the water is gone. We have a lot of dams around here but the municipality takes our water to other towns. We are really suffering. There are people in our communities who have tested positive for the coronavirus and we can’t even wash our hands.

“We want our water back. The sewage lines have been closed for as long as I can remember. I think the last time some of these towns were serviced was when we were part of the Transkei.”

He said they saw the JoJo tanks arrive as part of the government’s efforts to address water shortages during the state of disaster, but they have since “gone to people’s houses”.

“They are probably at the houses of friends and comrades,” he said. “You can still find the truck bringing water some days, but most of the time we have to buy water.”

Odendaal said the residents of towns such as Cradock, Middelburg and Komani have endured “desperate times”.

“Recent answers to parliamentary questions by [the Eastern Cape] MEC for Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Xolile Nqatha, have highlighted the district municipality’s utter disregard for the well-being of its residents.

“The Middelburg Wastewater Treatment Works (WWTW) has been dysfunctional for the past eight months, due to vandalism and theft of copper and metal from the plant. The DA has been highlighting [problems] at the Cradock Wastewater Treatment Works for more than a year and the situation at Middelburg proves that yet another WWTW is being left to fall apart under the management of the district municipality,” said Odendaal.

“In January, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) surveyed the Middelburg WWTW and ordered the Municipality to repair it. For months the municipality has done nothing, only recently appointing a service provider to attend to the issue and beginning the process of procuring the parts it needs.”

He added that this week would be the deadline for the DA to receive feedback on their application in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) for the district municipality to provide information on the water situation,” said Odendaal.

“In our PAIA application, we are requesting copies of all pre-directives, directives and compliance notices that were issued by the DWS to the CHDM between 2016 and 2020 for non-compliance with legislation regarding its water and sanitation competency.” MC/DM

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