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Child dies of E. coli infection in Nelson Mandela Bay — mayor advises residents to add bleach to water

Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality has urged people to boil their water before drinking it or using it for cooking. Frank Joubert primary school installed taps and tanks connected to school roof gutters for drinking water. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

Several medical doctors questioned how long the problem had been going on before the municipality came clean. The metro had seen high numbers of cases of people with gastro and diarrhoea in the past few weeks.

A child has died and another is in the intensive care unit as Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality officials scrambled on Tuesday to find a solution to the contaminated water in the city’s potable water system.

Despite several requests, the metro still has not provided the full water analysis results that triggered this week’s flurry of activity.

Several medical doctors, however, asked how long the problem had been going on before the municipality came clean as the metro had seen high numbers of cases of people with gastro and diarrhoea in the past few weeks.

nelson mandela bay water e. coli diarrhoea
Lindsay Rockman from Ramaphosa Village in Nelson Mandela Bay at a vandalised tap. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

A spokesperson for the Eastern Cape Department of Health, MK Ndamase, said three children from Kariega (formerly known as Uitenhage) were being treated for E. coli infections and one had died, while one is still in the paediatric intensive care unit at Dora Nginza Hospital. 

He said an outbreak response team in the metro was also investigating a cluster outbreak of diarrhoea cases at a crèche in Colchester.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases confirmed last week that there are outbreaks of typhoid fever (enteric fever) in the Western Cape and North West. None of these cases was linked to municipal water sources. Ndamase said there were no confirmed typhoid cases in Nelson Mandela Bay.

Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Eugene Johnson said she had received worrying reports regarding the poor quality of the city’s drinking water and had spent the day in meetings to discuss the implementation of remedial measures.

She warned that the water was still not safe to drink without boiling it first, but advised communities that could not boil their water to add a teaspoon of bleach to 20 litres of water to make it safe.

Johnson said the problem was caused by low dam levels that had resulted in “the deterioration of the water quality”, but water reports have flagged unacceptably high levels of faecal matter in the city’s water.

It’s brown, ‘but you can drink it’

Johnson said after bleach is added to the water “it will still be a bit brown but you can drink it”.

“We agreed that plan audits will be carried out,” she said on Tuesday, adding that they would increase chlorine levels in the water.

She added that the situation would be monitored every two hours “at all levels of the value chain. The water is still a health risk. It is not safe.  Boil before drinking.”    

Shops were overrun on Tuesday as residents bought large quantities of drinking water. 

Nosiphiwo Mpembe, from KwaDwesi, said the water on the lower side of KwaDwesi was clear.

“But clear water doesn’t mean it is safe to drink. A few days ago I drank water from the tap and I noticed that there was something off about our water, the water tasted funny. After having heard other people complaining about water, we decided not to consume water for drinking, especially after the municipality alert. 

nelson mandela bay water e. coli diarrhoea
Water tanks stand empty after taps have been stolen in Ramaphosa Village, Nelson Mandela Bay (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

“We are buying water for drinking purposes, and for cooking we normally boil our water, so it first goes through the boiling process for cooking. We are buying 15 litres per day for drinking. 

“A lot of people with chronic diseases are opting not to take the water because of their health conditions. This municipality is forcing people to go and buy water, but we are paying for service charges. Why are we paying for water twice?” asked Mpembe.

“I was supposed to move into Sherwood this week but because of the water issue, I can’t go there because the water issue has been persisting the whole week. 

“Firstly, they say the water pump has been stolen and they took three days to install it. After that, they told us about the pressure that was too low. Now, water is not right for consumption. I don’t understand why the municipality took this long to admit that there is a water crisis in the metro. I wonder how long the residents have been consuming water that is not safe for human consumption,” she said.

Zwide resident Phaki Moyi said the water they received had been discoloured since last week. 

“I was unable to drink it because of the colour. For other household chores, we were using rainwater. I am even afraid to cook with that water because the colour was not the one we are used to.

“I won’t trust tap water again, especially after the municipality finally admitted that the tap water is not safe for human consumption. I think the whole thing is attributed to corruption in this metro, because it is not that expensive to buy chlorine. Someone failed to do his or her job somewhere.

“Immediate action is needed after the municipality possibly puts residents’ health at risk; someone must take the blame for this. We don’t want to hear excuses about low-level dams, and environmental health should also be taken into account about the entire situation we found ourselves in,” Moyi said.

“Water is a basic need. We have a right to be provided with clean water, not this discoloured and dirty water flowing from our taps. I won’t trust tap water any time soon until the municipality gives us surety and detailed testing results that the water is safe for human consumption,” he said.

nelson mandela bay water e. coli diarrhoea
People queue to buy drinking water at Oasis, Sunridge Park shopping centre in Nelson Mandela Bay. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

A primary school principal, who did not want to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media, said the issue of water was very concerning. 

“We are working with children and children will remain children, sometimes they do drink the water. Nevertheless, we never experienced any cases [of diarrhoea]. When we noticed last week that water is discoloured, we quickly wrote to parents and asked them to give their children a bottle of water when they are coming to school because we can’t afford to buy water as a school.

“We are taking all the necessary steps to make sure that pupils are not drinking the contaminated water from school taps. We also asked our kitchen staff to boil water for anyone who wants water to be able to drink it. When there is a problem, we are held accountable by parents or we are blamed for negligence.

“This whole issue of water is making our work very difficult because we are experiencing staff shortages and now the few teachers we have must spend their time making sure that kids don’t come near the taps. The same teachers also have to make sure that teaching and learning are taking place at the very same time.”  

There does not appear to be a timeline yet for when the water situation will be resolved. DM/MC



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