17: COUNTDOWN TO CATASTROPHE
Minister in talks to take over Nelson Mandela Bay’s water department while DA moves to grab metro with new coalition
DA Federal Council chairperson Helen Zille confirmed on Wednesday that she will be trying to ‘put together a 10-party coalition’ in Nelson Mandela Bay as the city prepares for an unprecedented disaster when dams start to run dry mid-June. This comes as Treasury and the Water and Sanitation Department confirmed talks about a ‘takeover’ of the metro’s water department.
With 17 days left before the first supply dam to a large part of Nelson Mandela Bay fails, Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu will visit Nelson Mandela Bay on Friday, 3 June for “discussions” about the secondment of a senior official to take over the metro’s water department.
This follows weeks of a chaotic response as the metro gears up for an unprecedented situation where 40% of the city will be without water after 14 June, with more areas to follow as a second dam is scheduled to run dry two weeks later.
The region is in the grip of a seven-year drought with below-average rainfall and dismal prospects of rain in the next few months.
Nelson Mandela Bay will still receive some water from the Nooitgedacht Water Scheme, but it is not enough for the entire city. This scheme brings in water from the Gariep Dam in the Free State, which is 100% full.
No significant rain has been predicted for the area until August.
Yet, at the joint operations committee meeting this week, set up to deal with the water crisis, it was revealed that the City still takes an average of 10 days to fix a water leak – even though “they were trying for 48 hours”.
The committee heard that there were 2,194 leaks dating back to 2014 in households qualifying for assistance to the poor. These were being attended to by learner plumbers because the programme did not have any plumbers at present. The City also still needs to look at the reasons for high water consumption among 8,540 households in the programme.
The City’s director of bulk water supply, Joseph Tsatsire, said a “lot was being done to push back the inevitable”.
Asked about pictures showing water-augmentation projects, scheduled to come online only after the dams run dry and lying abandoned, he said there were problems with small businesses who also wanted to benefit from the work.
“The minister’s visit will be to get an update on the situation, not only in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, but in the broader area as well. He will also engage the province and the metro on the way forward as an outcome of the discussions. This will then be communicated accordingly,” Water and Sanitation spokesperson Sputnik Ratau said.
Concerns have, however, been raised about the possibility of the Amatola Water Board being appointed as an implementation agent for the drought response since the entity itself has major problems, including long delays in getting a major water augmentation project for the metro, known as Nooitgedacht Phase 3, off the ground. In addition, Mchunu fired the entity’s entire board in March.
Tango Lamani, the spokesperson for Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Eugene Johnson, said he could confirm that the mayor had received “correspondence from Mchunu about a proposed intervention by the National Government in the metro’s Water & Sanitation portfolio”.
“Discussions between the Minister and the Executive Mayor are continuing and the Minister will visit the Metro on Friday, 3 June, wherein he will address all issues relating to the intervention by the national government.”
This follows a visit by Treasury officials earlier in the week.
DA Federal Council chairperson Helen Zille told a public meeting on Wednesday night in Lorraine, Gqeberha that she would start negotiations on Thursday for a 10-party coalition to govern the metro.
The metro is governed by a multiparty coalition, although it appears that a major partner, the Northern Alliance, is no longer recognised by Johnson. The metro also has two city managers, both of whom claim to be the legitimate appointee, and both of whom are working away from headquarters owing to threats, according to DA councillor Dries van der Westhuyzen.
Deadlines have been missed for the passing of the Integrated Development Plan and the final budget. There is doubt whether any city council meetings can be called because the speaker, Gary van Niekerk, from the Northern Alliance, was ousted by his party and is in court fighting to get back in. Eastern Cape cooperative governance MEC Xolile Nqatha has refused to call meetings.
The DA, which holds about 40% of the votes in the metro, welcomed Mchunu’s intervention.
“On 18 May 2022, I wrote to the Director-General of the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and requested that a senior official or expert be seconded, not to act as an adviser, but to lead the sub-directorate for Water and Sanitation until this crisis has been mitigated. All officials, including the current Senior Director for Water and Sanitation, must also report to the seconded person,” Van der Westhuyzen, the DA’s water spokesperson in the metro, said.
In his letter, Van der Westhuyzen wrote: “The lack of will and urgency, and most importantly the lack of leadership during this crisis, has been of great concern to us, the official opposition in Council. Of particular importance are the following: The city has two apparently elected City Managers, with one recognised by some officials, and the other recognised by a different faction. The City Manager’s office remains unoccupied due to threats made to both incumbents. Both are working elsewhere within the municipality. The position of Executive Director: Infrastructure and Engineering (within which the Water and Sanitation sub-directorate resides) has been vacant for over a year. The acting incumbent stepped down recently, and no other official is either prepared to act or suitable to act. The Member of the Mayoral Committee (MMC) (Stag Mitchell from the Northern Alliance) has been removed from Council by his party. He is fighting this in court. In the interim, there is no active MMC, and councillors have had no portfolio committee meetings. This has severely affected the flow of information to the residents that councillors represent. The position of Speaker of Council (Gary van Niekerk from the Northern Alliance) is affected in the same way as that of the MMC, and Council meetings are held now only for compliance reasons.
“It is our contention that your Department can second an official, or a suitably qualified expert, to lead (not just to advise) the municipality’s Sub-Directorate of Water and Sanitation during this crisis time. This can be coupled with a directive that the seconded expert be utilised to LEAD the sub-directorate, and that all officials (including the current Senior Director: Water and Sanitation) report to the seconded person.”
Van der Westhuyzen continued: “It is worth noting that the officials in the relevant sub-directorate are largely competent. It is the leadership, and thus the high-level handling of the current crisis, that is at issue.
“In light of the fact that the first of our dams is set to run dry within 27 days, I trust that this request, made out of concern for the Metro in which we live, will receive your urgent attention.”
According to a 100-page presentation by bulk water supply director Tsatsire, to the joint operations committee on Tuesday afternoon, the new dates set for the dams to fail are 14 June for the Churchill Dam and 21 June for the Impofu dam. These dams supply a large part of Nelson Mandela Bay, and once they start failing, about 40% of the metro will run out of water. Tsatsire said the metro was on the last 1% of usable water in the dams.
The metro needed more than 50mm of rain in the catchment areas over 24 hours.
If the plan is to use communal taps, that queue will be three to five hours long.
Tsatsire highlighted problems at municipal call centres where up to 30,000 calls reporting service delivery problems, including water leaks, are recorded each month. They were crippled by staff and equipment shortages while operations were affected by load shedding and water outages as well as IT problems.
While there were teams out to fix leaks, there was a shortage of personnel who could verify that leaks had been fixed.
Since the supply from the Gariep Dam will not be enough, 110 large and densely populated suburbs at the end of the pipeline are projected to be without water for a prolonged period.
Van der Westhuyzen said the metro was not sharing information and was not telling residents what lay ahead, and there appeared to be no detailed plan to get water to clinics and hospitals.
“If the plan is to use communal taps, that queue will be three to five hours long,” he said. “Every person will have to fetch their own water.”
Councillor Annette Lovemore said she was “pretty shocked” after attending the metro’s joint operations committee meeting.
“There is only one meeting a week. There isn’t a holistic plan.”
She said the infrastructure portfolio committee, which is meant to deal with the crisis, was cancelled earlier in the week and the drought mitigation plan was only signed last Friday (27 May).
Many engineers had offered their services to help the City deal with the crisis.
Lovemore said there also were concerns about the stability of the Nooitgedacht canal which collapsed about five years ago. “What happens if that canal collapses?”
They had also received information that 10,000 calls a month, many to report water leaks, were being abandoned by the City’s call centre.
Tsatsire also said in his presentation that a programme to fix leaks at the homes of people who qualify for assistance to the poor, currently did not have plumbers.
Zille said the first thing that struck her about the water crisis was that “nobody was taking this seriously at all”, highlighting how important political stability was in dealing with the crisis.
A highly regarded Treasury official and water specialist, Gisela Kaiser, has been withdrawn from the city due to political instability, she said.
Zille added that she was not convinced that a “takeover” of the water situation by the national department would be good news. “We found them more of a hindrance than a help,” she said, referring to when Cape Town was closing in on Day Zero in 2018. DM/MC