As Nelson Mandela Bay lurches from water crisis to water crisis, officials have asked residents to pray for rain as some broke open drains in desperation, while panic buying of water has become the norm.
Mongameli Bobani, the former executive mayor who was ousted in December through a vote of no confidence, has been put in charge of managing the city’s water resources after Andile Lungisa, now facing time in prison, was asked to step down.
Bobani said late on Monday afternoon that “critical electricity repair work” would be done by Eskom to the overhead supply systems to the Nooitgedacht Water Treatment Works.
He said the repair work could cause water outages in areas including Coega, Motherwell and Chetty and urged residents to limit their water use.
“If residents use water sparingly, we will have enough water from the reservoirs. That is why we urge residents to save water. Should residents misuse water, a number of areas will be without water,” Bobani said.
After a series of serious infrastructure failures, large parts of the city were left without water, causing some desperate residents to break open drains to access water, while shops sold out their stocks of water.
The first failures and water outages started on 3 September after a bulk pipe at the Nooitgedacht pump station burst. The Nooitgedacht scheme brings water from the Gariep Dam to the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro and can provide half the metro’s water. After some rain in late August, the dam levels in the metro increased by 2% to 18.75%.
On 1 September, Bobani described the metro as being “in the danger zone”. At the time, Barry Martin, the Nelson Mandela Bay senior director for water and sanitation said parts of the metro had reached Day Zero.
“KwaNobuhle and Uitenhage are currently challenged by constant water supply interruptions. The residents from these areas are supplied from the Kouga Dam which is currently sitting at 8.09%. We are unable to extract water from that dam on certain days because the water is very low. If the dam levels drop in any of the dams supplying the city, it means a certain part of the city experiences Day Zero,” he explained.
Strict water restrictions allowing 50 litres of water per person are currently in place.
On 4 September, Bobani announced that the metro had reached Day Zero.
“We are on Day Zero because we are using more water than we actually have in our dams. Currently, our consumption of water is 290 million litres per day while we are supposed to use 268 million litres a day or less.
“This crisis is beyond our control. The rain is not falling enough, making our dams drier each day. The current total dam levels are at 18.8%.”
Municipal staff had been struggling to deal with water outages to the city’s Northern Areas since 26 August after breakdowns in pipes and the electricity supply. At the time Bobani urged residents to pray for rain.
Gary van Niekerk, a community leader in the Northern Areas, said desperate people, without water for a week, were breaking open drains.
“The water outages affected us badly. The people of the Northern Areas had to get water out of drains,” he said. “Water trucks were mainly sent to the western suburbs. They even stayed there overnight. We were treated like we don’t exist.”
On 6 September Bobani announced that the city had suffered another setback. A statement issued by the municipality said a fault had occurred in the main electricity supply to the Nooitgedacht scheme and that this was not because of load shedding. The fault, it was announced, would take five hours to fix.
By then many parts of the city had been without reticulated water for close to a week, with many houses struggling with low water pressure. Later that day there was no longer talk of Day Zero but instead, Bobani announced that the pumps were working and water would return to the western parts of the city by morning, with one of the critical reservoir levels having increased from 9% to 18%.
Three days later Bobani announced that there was not enough water. One reservoir had fallen to 9% and another to 7%. Another huge part of the city ran dry “due to insufficient water into the system and an electrical fault on the pump station that pumps water into the reservoir”.
By September 10 this had not been resolved. Water was only restored to some parts of the city by 11 September, with water to all parts of the city only restored by Sunday 13 September.
The CEO of the Nelson Mandela Business Chamber, Nomkhita Mona, said they were urgently scheduling a meeting with the metro’s water department to find a way for the city to tackle the crisis “as a collective”. She said the water crisis in the city had the potential to shut businesses down, adding further pressure to the negative impact brought about by Covid-19 and its related lockdowns.
“Practically all productive economic activity requires water in one way or another, and the local industries most affected include fruit, dairy, and other farming and agro-processing, tanneries, textile manufacturing, the meat and beverages industries, as well as automotive and other manufacturing.
“Some of our member companies have indicated that the lack of water would have a devastating impact on their businesses – such that some would have to shut their operations down. One of our leading manufacturers in the auto sector has reduced overall water consumption by 70% annually, and has medium-term plans for a large recycling plant. However, not all companies have this level of resources to enable them to implement such large-scale innovative projects. Even so, the immediacy of the water crisis will cripple them too.”
She said support for the city at this time of crisis from other spheres of government was “insufficient.”
“There does not seem to be a level of urgency around what needs to be done to deal decisively with the matter, only explanations that make no real sense are offered. Additionally, this kind of crisis does not suddenly befall any region overnight. This has been a long time coming and if there were any level of seriousness from those responsible to deliver this service, it would have been averted.
“There are several key reasons for the seeming inaction from residents as a result of this crisis,” she said, explaining that with the outbreak of the coronavirus, water became very important.
“The appointed leaders of the metro have demonstrated that they are more concerned with factionalism and coalition infighting than cooperating with business and/or civil society to implement solutions or to lobby collectively at higher spheres of government for additional resources.
“There has also been somewhat of a paralysis and lethargy from civil society in mobilising and holding this city’s administration accountable for service delivery. This tended to be the sole responsibility of the Business Chamber. We are pleased that there is a strong civil society lobby group (which we are the founding members of) that is raising many of the governance issues,” she said.
In a letter written in July to provincial legislature member Retief Odendaal, the head of the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC), Mmaphaka Tau, confirmed that the declaration of South Africa as a drought disaster area, allowing for emergency interventions, had lapsed.
In his letter, Tau added that the effects of the current drought were aggravated by a lack of integrated water service development planning, poor water resource management, water leakages due to ageing infrastructure, lack of rapid response to damaged infrastructure and insufficient technical skills in municipalities, vandalism and theft of water infrastructure by communities, and poor governance and financial management within municipalities and other organs of state.
The leader of the Democratic Alliance in Nelson Mandela Bay, Nqaba Bhanga said it wasn’t true that the city had reached “Day Zero”.
“What we have reached is Day Incompetence.”
He said there was a shocking lack of communication with the people from the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality.
“But apart from information on the current crisis, the right strategy would have been to include residents as part of the solution,” he said. He added that not all councillors had been briefed about the crisis and no reports were tabled about it. “Councillors knew nothing.”
He said a shocking lack of maintenance had been uncovered. “Subcontractors were not performing maintenance because they had not been paid,” he said.
Bhanga added that he had been told that the contract with the business providing chemicals for water treatment had not been renewed in time.
“Supply chain management told me they were given a chance to renew in June and July and August and eventually it wasn’t even renewed through emergency procurement, but done in a way that amounted to irregular expenditure.”
He said the city was not attending to water leaks.
“Some politicians in this city think they are bigger than the basic services – we are heading in that direction. We have to fight.”
The Nelson Mandela Bay metro has denied allegations that it has run out of chemicals to treat water. Bhanga said despite being the leader of the opposition party in the city, even he did not know where water tankers were deployed.
“Nobody knew where to get water. There is no plan.”
In August the SA Human Rights Commission ruled, with reference to the municipal management of water in Cradock, Middelburg and Komani, that a lack of access to water and adequate sanitation was a violation of human rights and referred the matter for an investigation.
Nelson Mandela Bay councillor Morne Steyn has written to the SAHRC asking for a similar investigation.
In his letter he highlighted the numerous unattended water leaks, load shedding to pump stations supplying reservoirs, a lack of water tankers and a lack of chemicals for the treatment of water supply. DM/MC