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Death threats, protests and rubber bullets as Butterworth residents struggle for water

The Gcuwa Weir does not have enough water to supply Butterworth communities. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

As dams dried up and the Amathole District Municipality admitted it can only provide a fraction of the water needed by the Butterworth district, members of community organisations claim they have been shot at. Some say they have received death threats as the battle and protests for water continue.

The Amathole District Municipality has admitted that it can only supply 3% of Butterworth’s usual demand for water when its fleet of 18 tankers is working at maximum capacity, with the majority of residents having to stay without.

Completion of two long-term projects that could amplify water supply in the area is four years away, a spokesperson for the Amathole District Municipality, Nonceba Madikizela-Vuso, said. 

“As part of our long-term solutions, the Department of Water and Sanitation has allocated R724-million towards the Tsomo Bulk Line, which will take 48 months to complete its first phase, starting from October 2020. The department has also committed to raise the wall of Gcuwa Weir to increase its capacity.” 

A Butterworth resident collecting water from a nearby river. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

She said Butterworth has an average consumption of 14 million litres of water a day. Because the dams have dried up, the area now relies solely on water carting for potable water. The fleet of 18 water tankers can deliver only 540,000l of water a day.

“Water is supplied to communal tanks, not individual households. No specific provision is made for water for toilets,” Madikizela-Vuso said.

She said the carting of water was their short-term solution to the dire water shortages in the area.

Madikezela-Vuso said that in six weeks’ time boreholes on the Butterworth golf course coupled with the boreholes that are part of the Teko Kona project will come on line to add another two million litres of water a day.

A truck transports water to Butterworth villages. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

“These projects will still not come close to meeting the normal demand. But they will bring some relief,” she said. “Groundwater is now the only source for Butterworth communities as the drought continues.”

The main supplying dam, Xilinxa, is without water, apart from “dead storage” (water that is below the outlet of the dam), and the Gcuwa Weir remains without sufficient water to supply Butterworth communities.

Madikezela-Vuso said they had received a grant of R3.3-million to hire another six tankers for two months. 

“At 10,000 litres per tanker, these will be able to cart 36 plastic tanks a day, having done three trips. This will augment supply for a short period of time.”

Butterworth residents are drinking borehole water that is marked as unfit for human consumption. (File photo taken February 2020 / Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik / GroundUp)

Nonkanyiso Voyi, 61, from Cuba Village in Butterworth, said she and other leaders of the Butterworth Concerned Citizens had been receiving death threats since 2019 when they first protested against water shortages in the area. 

Voyi emphasised that she was not shaken by this. 

“We drink polluted water, our health is at risk, the only thing that we are asking from government is for them to build Gcuwa Dam,” she said.

“Threatening the leadership of this movement won’t solve anything, instead it will make things worse because the truth is we are facing a serious water crisis.”

Protests in the area have been ongoing since residents’ taps first ran dry in August 2019.

The spokesperson for the Butterworth Concerned Citizens, Sibabaliwe Dadaboshe, said that after they protested on 26 and 27 November 2019 the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu, came to see them.

“We ended up naming her ‘Nozithembiso Sisulu’ because she always makes empty promises,” he said.

A community member who was injured by a rubber bullet during a protest on Monday 26 October 2020, Nonkosinathi Mthayisi, is in critical condition in Butterworth Hospital.

It is alleged that Mthayisi was injured after police opened fire with rubber bullets to disperse the protesters.

Resident Asisipho Mhlathi was also injured during the protest. 

Last week, police vehicles patrolled the streets of Butterworth while water tankers made their deliveries. The delivery of water had been temporarily suspended earlier in October as there were fears that the trucks would be damaged by angry crowds.

“The major problem is they are refusing to build a dam,” Dadaboshe said.

She said there had been a breakdown in trust between the organisation and the task team established by the Office of Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane.

“We always went back and gave feedback to our citizens, but now the [task team] is circulating their own reports,” she said.

“The progress is there on records, but there is nothing happening on the ground. The Gcuwa Dam is still the same and if the government was taking us seriously, the Gcuwa Dam would have been built by now, but it’s clear that they don’t care about us.” 

Dadaboshe said those most affected by the lack of water are the vulnerable people from rural areas.

“They have resorted to bringing water tanks to the communities, but what about those people residing in rural areas who do not have access to these water tanks?” Dadaboshe asked. 

“We are not only concerned about the state of water in urban areas. There are people suffering in rural areas too, why are they not getting these tanks?”

She also rubbished claims that they had vandalised water tankers. “We are calling on the head of water for the Amathole municipality and the councillors and business people who said this, that they must go and clean our names. We never vandalised water tankers.” DM/MC

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