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Nelson Mandela Bay caught in perfect storm of Covid-19, electricity and water crises, says business chamber

Nelson Mandela Bay caught in perfect storm of Covid-19, electricity and water crises, says business chamber
The Nelson Mandela Business Chamber has started a programme to fix water leaks and running taps at schools where failing infrastructure is contributing to 10% of water losses in the metro. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

Describing the situation in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro as a ‘perfect storm’, the president of the region’s business chamber, Dr Andrew Muir, said the crises in the city had been caused by a decade of service delivery failures.

The Eastern Cape’s biggest metro, Nelson Mandela Bay, is in a “perfect storm”, facing possible future waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, a huge water crisis and constant interruptions caused by ageing electricity infrastructure, the president of the region’s business chamber, Dr Andrew Muir, said this week.

Water to about one-third of the metro is predicted to run out if it doesn’t rain soon, and Muir said this was partly due to service delivery failures over the past decade – it was as much a leadership crisis as it was a water crisis.

The Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality last week called on all residents and businesses to urgently conserve water as surface water in the metro’s two biggest dams, the Kouga Dam and the Impofu Dam, is predicted to run out if the region does not receive good rainfall in the next few months. 

The metro currently consumes between 290 million litres and 300 million litres per day, and needs to reduce this to 250 million litres a day. Residents have been encouraged to use a maximum of 50 litres of water per day and the municipality has indicated that flow restrictors will be fitted to the properties of the metro’s heaviest water users.

“We are facing a perfect storm caused by a number of issues, many of which could have been avoided. Inadequate forward planning and the lack of maintenance of infrastructure has impacted upon the reliability of electricity supply. 

“Water leaks account for a loss of around 35% of our water, with at least 10% of this happening at schools. This is why the chamber and its members have gotten involved in initiatives to curb water losses at schools,” Muir said. 

President of the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber Andrew Muir. (Photo: Supplied)

“Overlay this with the impact which climate change has had from a drought perspective as well as the ongoing threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have written to Premier Oscar Mabuyane and the minister of water affairs, sanitation and human settlements. Treasury is withholding funding because of corruption. You will remember that two years ago when the auditing teams of National Treasury arrived in the city they were chased away from City Hall,” he said. “Our history is coming back to bite us.”

The city is emerging from a devastating second wave of coronavirus infections after a highly contagious strain of the virus was first identified here.

Now the metro, which is home to 1.2 million people, faces another crisis as its supply dams are running dry.

“Organised business is deeply concerned about the pending water crisis, which is projected to impact water supply to at least a third of the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan area,” Muir said. 

“We appeal to national government to urgently make funding available to support mitigation initiatives to deal with the drought. In tandem with this, the Eastern Cape province needs to declare the metro as a disaster area in order to secure additional funding to support the implementation of these initiatives.

“Key industrial and commercial businesses are located in the zones which are projected to potentially be without water from July. This is of great concern to us, particularly in terms of the impact it will have on our local economy. 

“The automotive and related industries, which account for almost 40% of our Metro’s GDP, are located within these impacted areas. So too is Aspen’s sterile facility which will be producing vaccines for half of South Africa’s population,” he said.

Muir added that the water crisis stemmed from a decade of service delivery failures and a deep leadership crisis in the metro.

“In the time that I have been president of the business chamber [since 2019] I had to deal with four mayors.” 

He said the business sector in the metro was responsive to problems and had ensured that 500 public service beds were put back into operation during the first and second waves of coronavirus infections. The business sector had also set up a state-of-the-art field hospital without government funding.

“Nelson Mandela Bay would have looked like India if it wasn’t for us,” he said, referring to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in that country caused by a massive outbreak of coronavirus infections.

Apart from having to battle frequent electricity outages caused by ageing infrastructure, the city was losing up to 35% of its water through leaks.

“That is our biggest problem,” he said. “Without the leaks, we would not have a water crisis.”

While there is very little water in the metro’s biggest supply dam, the Kouga Dam, and the second-biggest, the Impofu Dam, is about 15% full, the city receives about 60% of its water from the Nooitgedacht scheme, linking it to the Gariep Dam and the Orange River.

“Nooitgedacht is our lifesaver,” Muir said, adding that water leaks had to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

As a conservationist and social entrepreneur, Muir, who is the CEO of the Wilderness Foundation Africa, is passionate about water conservation.

“If you look at cities in Namibia with the same ageing infrastructure, their water losses through leaks are down to 9%.”

The metro now needed to implement expensive short-term solutions, like a desalination plant and boreholes, “at great cost to the ratepayer”, which could have been avoided had the water leaks been fixed.

“We have to ask ourselves, why have we allowed it to get to this point? The water crisis in this city is directly related to the crisis in leadership.”

He said that given the metro’s ongoing electricity problems the use of boreholes and desalination plants will not be feasible. “These will use massive amounts of electricity and if the power is off they will not work.”

The city had to focus on water harvesting and there would be great potential for a project to provide households with water tanks.

“What we need is a long-term culture change,” he said. “None of this is going to be over soon.

“Businesses in the metro are trying their best to conserve water. Volkswagen [based in Kariega, formerly Uitenhage] have already reduced their water needs considerably. The big factories are all harvesting water from their roofs.

“If the water runs out, about a third of the town will be affected, but there are large businesses in these parts – and we fear the knock-on effect if small and medium-sized businesses are affected, as many are connected to big industry,” he said. 

Water leaks account for 30% of water losses in Nelson Mandela Bay. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

Nelson Mandela Bay would fail to attract more investment if the water and electricity problems are not sorted out, he said. 

“Businesses will go where they can find water and electricity.” 

Muir said there was nothing wrong with the municipality’s water plan, but the implementation was hindered by problems, including that 80% of the municipal fleet is currently not operational, leading to problems for transport teams trying to fix the leaks.

After schools were identified as contributing about 10% of the metro’s water losses they decided that businesses and schools should work together to minimise leaks.

“About a third of the water losses in the city come from schools and a lot of it can be tracked to the theft of copper pipes.” He explained that many of the schools have a “night-time” flow of water when taps are left open or copper pipes are stolen.

The chamber has identified 30 schools with the worst water problems.

“We are fixing these without copper,” he said. “Our average spend is about R250,000 per school.”

While some rain fell in the region in the past two weeks, Muir said it would be a “terrible mistake” to think that the drought will break soon. 

“Water scarcity is going to be with us in the long term. There will be long terms with no rain and short periods of heavy rain. We must get in the habit to harvest and conserve water,” he said.

“While many businesses are urgently investing in measures to develop alternative water supply and to reduce their water consumption levels, not all have the resources to do so, and also of concern is the increasing cost of doing business in this metro. 

“We need an enabling environment in place if we want to retain and attract investment to our metro. This requires the involvement and commitment of a wide range of stakeholders who need to unite with the common goal of getting the basics in place.”

He added that while many businesses had drilled their own boreholes they need licences and this can take up to 12 months.

“We are trying to fast-track those,” he said.

Muir stressed that boreholes cannot be a long-term solution to the drought. “If there are too many it will collapse the aquifers.  It is not a long-term solution, particularly for a coastal area where there is the fear that salt water can get into the aquifers.”

He said there is a strong argument to be made for the overhaul of the procurement system, especially for essential infrastructure.

“We welcome the decision taken by council last week to approve the construction of the desalination plant, which will provide 15 million litres of water per day to the metro. It is, however, critically important that the completion date of May 2022 is achieved.”

Muir said the problems cannot be solved by pointing fingers, and the business chamber was keen to work with authorities to help solve the water crisis.

“Industry has the knowhow to help. We can fix the big water leaks. We are keen to assist. We have made a call. We need to get on top of this as soon as possible.” DM/MC

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