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OUR BURNING PLANET

They know the drill: Gift of the Givers steps up to sink boreholes for battling Joburg hospitals

The borehole drilling team at work at Helen Joseph Hospital. If the Gift of the Givers team is successful, the hospital will have a reserve water supply. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Faced with underfunding, overpopulation and load shedding, Johannesburg Water has battled to consistently supply Johannesburg West, affecting several hospitals. As Gauteng enters a third Covid-19 wave, no hospital wants to face not having access to water. Once again Gift of the Givers has come to the rescue and has begun drilling a borehole at Helen Joseph Hospital, having already done so for the Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital.

Last Friday, Gift of the Givers broke ground at Helen Joseph Hospital, drilling a borehole as an emergency response to months of inconsistent supply from Johannesburg Water. 

Since then, the Gift of the Givers team has drilled day and night, going 244m deep. On Wednesday, it found a blow yield (the rate at which water is blown from a borehole) of 1,500 litres per hour, but has not yet found sufficient water supply to support the hospital — it needs at least another 6,000l per hour. On Friday, it will move its equipment to another of the eight sites identified by Dr Gideon Groenewald, a geologist, as potentially water bearing.

This borehole is usable but doesn’t supply enough water to sustain the hospital, so another borehole just 70m away will be drilled. Photo: Martyn Landmann

“That’s part of the challenge,” Gift of the Givers founder Dr Imtiaz Sooliman told Daily Maverick. “You don’t always get it right on the first attempt, but then you learn a lot about the rock formation and plan for the follow-up intervention. The effort is never lost as you gain knowledge in the process.”

It’s a process that is known for its unpredictability and demands patience, but a rewarding one — if the team finds the supply it’s looking for, Helen Joseph Hospital will never have to worry about running out of water again. 

Faced with the same issue, more than a week ago Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital — which is just down the road from Helen Joseph Hospital — called Gift of the Givers, asking for bottled water and portable toilets. Shocked that a hospital needed these and realising the gravity of the situation, Sooliman arranged for a team to start drilling a borehole at the hospital so it would have a reserve supply of water. 

“I said, look if that’s the case you’ve got to do something sustainable. I mean, in fact, every hospital in South Africa should have a borehole, just like every hospital should have a generator for the surgery and ICU,” he said.

The team started drilling last Tuesday and by Wednesday had already found 18,000l per hour — enough to meet the hospital’s daily need of 90,000l to 130,000l. Hearing about this, Helen Joseph Hospital CEO Dr Relebohile Ncha asked if Gift of the Givers could do the same thing at her hospital.

borehole site
The drilling team working at 9pm last Friday at the first borehole site at Helen Joseph Hospital. (Photo: Julia Evans)

The recent water crisis that has affected the hospital and surrounding districts in western Johannesburg could not have come at a worse time, since it threatens the normal functioning of the hospital, which is compounded by the pressures of the third wave on an already overloaded system. Helen Joseph Hospital is one of the hospitals that has had to absorb some of the patients from Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, which has been temporarily closed after a fire more than six weeks ago. 

“You can’t do anything in any hospital without washing your hands, because you’ll spread infection,” says Sooliman. “Forget Covid-19, all other types of infection will spread because of no water, and with no water there’s no hygiene.” 

Daily Maverick recently investigated and reported on Johannesburg’s water system, finding that a large number of the city’s 87 water reservoirs are not functioning or pumping at low pressures. 

The problems in the area can be attributed to various causes; the pumping stations have crumbling infrastructure due to underfunding and the supply area is overpopulated, with two growing informal settlements and two hospitals to cater for. 

Sooliman says recent load shedding has compounded the problem since it means water stations cannot pump water in and out of reservoirs.

Helen Joseph Hospital gets its water from the Hursthill reservoir system.

Eleanor Mavimbela, external communications officer for Johannesburg Water, told Daily Maverick: “Johannesburg Water has been getting below-average flow of water from our bulk-water supplier Rand Water into the Hursthill reservoir. One of the other reasons is the power failure experienced at the Rand Water Eikenhof pump station.”

Rand Water supplies the bulk of water to Johannesburg Water. In a joint media statement on 2 June, Rand Water and Johannesburg Water said that in May they shut down the Eikenhof pump station to prepare for the replacement of an isolation valve — an essential component that stops the flow of fluids in a pipeline and is necessary during maintenance. During that period a power failure had affected the water supply to the Hursthill system.

Since then they had been unable to “recover to acceptable reservoir levels”.

drilling team
The drilling team has drilled day and night since last Friday, going 244m deep. This borehole, while functional, did not supply sufficient water. (Photo: Julia Evans)

They added: “The system supplies high-lying areas that have historically been vulnerable to fluctuating bulk-water supply during high-demand seasons. Over the past years the bulk supply system has been under severe pressure due to the increased water demand.”

Rand Water and Johannesburg Water said they were investigating the problems and committed to resolving the challenges.

As a temporary solution, Johannesburg Water has been sending water tankers from its depots when water tanks run dry and the reservoirs can’t pump water out. 

However, Sooliman does not think this is a sustainable solution: “The water tankers can’t carry that much water. It takes a long time to fill a tanker and by the time you’ve put it in the system the hospital has already used it.” 

Ncha, CEO of Helen Joseph Hospital, told Daily Maverick: “With this recent water shortage, the tankers had to be here almost 24 hours a day to keep pumping the water into our system, so that we don’t get a stoppage.

“There have been challenges here and there, where the tankers would arrive late when our tanks are already dry. And it would take time for the tanks to pick up again and for us to continue our service.”

At full capacity, a water tank at Helen Joseph can take roughly 260,000l. Ncha said that usually by about 11am it would be used up. 

gift of the givers
Disaster relief group and NGO Gift of the Givers began drilling a borehole last Friday at Helen Joseph Hospital as an emergency response to months of inconsistent water supply from Johannesburg Water. (Photo: Julia Evans)

She said that since February there had been an inconsistent water supply at the hospital, but May had been the worst month for interruptions.

Ncha does note that for the past few days they’ve had running water due to Johannesburg Water cross-feeding Helen Joseph through the Brixton Tower. Johannesburg Water said recently this was a temporary solution and that once levels at the Hursthill reservoir improved, the hospital would be switched back.

Not having access to a constant supply of water affects the normal functioning of a hospital.

Without running taps, sanitation is compromised, which raises the risk of infection spreading. Additionally, floors can’t be mopped, linen and protective gear can’t be washed and toilets don’t flush. 

But Ncha said the area that was most compromised by water stoppages was the renal dialysis unit, where patients “need flowing water because they sit on the machine for about four hours”.

“The impact that it had on patients was that we’d had to possibly reschedule some of them, or delayed the start of their treatments. We have tried not to cancel any major procedures in any major services. But we’ve had to reschedule because of the timing of the tankers coming through and us having services.

“Also, in terms of our theatre, we had to focus more on emergency cases that come and postpone a little bit of our elective surgeries.”

Gauteng Provincial Health granted permission for Gift of the Givers to drill at Helen Joseph Hospital last Thursday.

patients
Patients wait outside Helen Joseph Hospital. The hospital faced water supply challenges throughout May. (Photo: Julia Evans)

As that hospital goes through more than a 260,000l tank a day, it will need at least 10,000l an hour for 20 hours to sustain itself.

As the first borehole only has 1,500l an hour so far, it will probably need several boreholes. The Gift of the Givers team is drilling at another site 70m from the first where it hopes to find a supply of at least 6,000l an hour.

Sooliman said there might also be a leak at the hospital. If there was and it was fixed, the hospital would go through much less water each day.

Asked how he felt about his foundation having to step in and provide what the government should be responsible for, Sooliman said: “Gift of the Givers does this all the time. The problem with the government is their processes are too slow, and it’s actually tied up in the old bureaucracy.

“They need a faster system. And I keep emphasising government doesn’t understand three words: urgency, emergency and disaster. You can’t be waiting for four weeks to make sure that water comes to the hospital, people will die.

“We need a kind of system where water, electricity, hospitals, disaster management, emergency services — all have a different mechanism where decisions are taken quickly. 

“Like what we do, we are in disaster mode all the time, because we’re a disaster agency. And so, in cases where people call us, we can step in very fast. We don’t have paperwork. We don’t have bureaucracy.”

Sooliman told Daily Maverick that when it first got the call from Rahima Moosa Hospital, Gift of the Givers was willing to use its reserve funds, but then Impala Platinum stepped up to cover all the costs. At that hospital alone, the cost of drilling, bringing in equipment operators from the Free State, accommodation and diesel for the truck cost R700,000. Because the process is taking longer at Helen Joseph Hospital, the cost will be higher.

On the government’s response, Ncha said: “I want to look at the two entities differently. The government has got its own obligations to fulfil. And I think they are doing that. When we had this crisis, we even had a meeting with the Department of Infrastructure Development to see how they can best assist us. And on the Gift of the Givers side, I mean, it is the work that they do. And I think they work collaboratively.”

Whichever stance you take, one thing is clear — having a borehole as a reserve water supply is a huge relief for any hospital. 

“I was telling somebody that is going to remove one of the stresses that we face on a daily basis as a hospital,” said Ncha.

“It’s going to really assist us, pretty much in the long run… It gives us a comfort to say that in case anything happens, we’ll still be able to provide services to our patients. So that’s what we are really grateful for at this point.” DM

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  • I hope that at some stage the Gift of the Givers gets the recognition that they deserve. What a fabulous home grown product.

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