Maverick Citizen

KWAZULU-NATAL

City of eThekwini’s answers to questions about weeks-long water cuts run dry

Photo of Durban by Michael Jansen (Via Flickr)

A group of residents are now considering civil action against the municipality for the outage, which lasted from 6-15 January in some parts, and up to 21 January in others.

The City of eThekwini has refused to make details available about how residents in several southern and western suburbs went without running water for weeks this month because of broken pump motors at its Northdene station.

While the city maintained earlier this month that the pump station had been repaired, some residents believe the area is receiving water because the city managed to strike a deal with global packaging and paper group Mondi, and is using its machinery.

It is difficult to get clarity on the state of affairs. The city failed to respond to 14 detailed questions submitted by Daily Maverick, including requests for the maintenance history of the machinery in question, the estimated number of residents affected, who received the contract to repair the pumps, and questions about its water tanker distribution strategy in times of crisis.

Instead, the city responded by attaching an old press statement, and an email, which included the following:

“eThekwini like any organisation will not always be infallible and we are on record as saying that we do commit mistakes, but the most important thing is our response to correcting such mistakes. This incident is a case in point where we have come up with interventions with speed. As a result, in as much as there was no running water, no home went without water because of our water tankers.”

 And…

“In as much as we have experienced this recent challenge it does not mean that the Municipality is dysfunctional. The City is still in control of how basic services are provided. There may be challenges in certain instances like it happens in any other organization. The most important thing for us is to apologise sincerely to our residents in the event there is a hiccup in the provision of basic services.”

Asked by Daily Maverick to answer the specific questions we sent, the tone quickly changed: “That is the City’s official response on the matter, we have nothing further to add.”

A group of residents is now considering civil action against the municipality for the outage, which lasted from 6-15 January in some parts, and up to 21 January in others. This while eThekwini – deemed a Covid-19 hotspot – is in the full grip of the second wave of the pandemic.

According to residents, the city first communicated about the problem two days into the outage, and to date, has not answered their specific questions either.

But, according to the city: “As per norm messages were shared using local media. Messages asking for calm and pleading with residents to exercise social distancing and to allow for water tankers to go through (dwellers from informal settlements were diverting trucks and threatening residents) were also shared on radio.

“At all times, the City ensures that it communicates with its residents, there are numerous platforms used. Our tank roll-out strategy was coordinated.”

This last claim, however, is either false or misinformed if eThekwini Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda is to be believed. On 8 December 2020, Kaunda, after listening to briefings by senior managers responding to audit findings made against their respective departments, said there was an urgent need to “expedite” the implementation of tracking systems in water tankers because of widespread abuse.

“You would rather spend money to monitor people (drivers) than to have the situation that we have where they can just drive anywhere to go and sell water instead of servicing communities which are in dire need. It is important that this is expedited. It is one issue that needs to be addressed. With no close monitoring the element of abuse will always take precedence over delivery of water.”

During that same virtual meeting, which Daily Maverick sat in on, DA executive councillor Yogis Govender, who initially raised the issue, said she had intimate knowledge of the shortcomings with regards to the lack of a clear water tanker strategy. She said during water interruptions in Tongaat in November, she found 10 water tankers in one area, when one would have been sufficient, and then no water tankers in other areas. She said this was a pattern that repeated itself across the city.

We want to know the same things you [Daily Maverick] asked them. Where is the maintenance history for the pumps? Do the pumps have to be replaced or refurbished? If they have to do this, when is it going to be done, and what plan do they have in place to ensure we don’t go through this again? Who is going to pay for all of this, because the city is broke.

Speaking to Daily Maverick about the city’s response to the latest outage, 63-year-old community activist Omi Nair said: “The left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.” 

Nair lives in the Crossmoor area, one of those affected, where she is known as “Aunty Omi”.

She said she was not interested in civil action, but wanted answers from the municipality and a good contingency plan.

“We want to know the same things you [Daily Maverick] asked them. Where is the maintenance history for the pumps? Do the pumps have to be replaced or refurbished? If they have to do this, when is it going to be done, and what plan do they have in place to ensure we don’t go through this again? Who is going to pay for all of this, because the city is broke.”

It would be ideal if the municipality sank boreholes as a contingency plan, she said, “but where will they get the money?”

The city said at the time that it was working towards utilising up to 54 water trucks to ensure clean water for residents, but still, community members told Daily Maverick they had not been informed when and where trucks would be stopping.

“The truck stopped and we just had to run with our bottles, we missed it. There just wasn’t enough water in it, and it just left again,” said one woman, who asked not to be named.

Crossmoor was without running water for seven days.

“The municipality keeps on changing their story. They have told us so many lies. First it was a lightning strike from a storm on New Year’s Eve, then problems because of the rain. But, from what we understand, there was no maintenance being done. A tender was put out last year for the pumps to be repaired. Why weren’t they? Who got the contract?” said Nair.

Nair was one of the community members instrumental in getting networks across the province to deliver water to the affected areas.

“People really rallied – communities rallied. On the day that the water came on, we had to phone a network in Port Shepstone and tell them please not to come up with the 20 trucks they had with water, because our taps were finally on.”

Nair said that Crossmoor’s two ANC councillors were “missing in action”, with other residents agreeing.

“We haven’t seen our councillor for years,” said one Ward 17 resident. The councillor did not answer Daily Maverick’s calls or text messages.

While the city would not disclose just how many people were affected, Daily Maverick used detailed ward census data from the 2011 National Census for the affected areas, and then applied the city’s yearly population growth to those numbers.

On a conservative estimation, about 70,000 people could have been affected by the water interruptions, but local activists claim the number is much higher, and could be in the region of hundreds of thousands. A precise number is difficult to calculate due to water infrastructure not following municipal ward demarcations. 

Nevertheless, it is well known that the city’s infrastructure is under severe strain due to the population growth in peri-urban regions, the informal housing sector, and poor maintenance and planning.

eThekwini has been rolling out the Western and Northern Aqueducts project to provide water to areas that were previously under-serviced, but this has been beset with problems, primarily due to so-called business forums halting contractors.

The municipality is also facing water shortages in areas where it won’t be able to charge for services.

Ednick Msweli, eThekwini’s head of water services, told the city’s executive council on Tuesday that while its budget was under pressure and water reached areas such as Ntuzuma, the reality was that no payment would be forthcoming for the service. The city is expected to write off close to R1-billion in bad debt relating to water supplied to poor areas.  

The Umgeni Water Board, which also supplies the city with water, has itself experienced problems in recent months. In December 2020 water pumps at the Inanda Dam failed, causing water cuts in Umlazi, Nsimbini, Folweni and Golokodo.

In November, the city claimed vandalism at its Montville Reservoir site in Cato Manor had led to water cuts in the city centre and surrounds, while another interruption in supply was the result of a burst pipe.

That same month, the city’s water and sanitation unit entered into a partnership with the Water Research Commission (WRC) to “develop innovative ways to ensure eThekwini residents have access to clean water and proper sanitation”.

The areas of cooperation were formalised around non-sewered sanitation systems and supplying clean and safe drinking water to the city’s large indigent population.

Nevertheless, again in November, water was interrupted to Umlazi and the southern regions. This was also caused by a burst pipe. That same month, a high-level city delegation led by Mayor Kaunda was dispatched to the city’s northern areas near Tongaat where intermittent water supply, among other service delivery issues, was being experienced. DM

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