First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

‘No problem is insurmountable’ — Dr Imtiaz Soolim...

Maverick Citizen

COUNTDOWN TO CATASTROPHE

‘No problem is insurmountable’ — Dr Imtiaz Sooliman on Nelson Mandela Bay’s Day Zero

Dr Imtiaz Sooliman at a borehole drilled by Gift of the Givers at the Elizabeth Donkin Psychiatric Hospital in Gqeberha, Nelson Mandela Bay, Eastern Cape. (Photo: Deon Ferreira).

With his ‘can-do’ attitude and trademark energy, Gift of the Givers’ Dr Imtiaz Sooliman has brought some hope to Nelson Mandela Bay — a city torn apart by political bickering and severe water problems.

Confronted by a city on the brink of Day Zero (again), with a dysfunctional municipality and critically severe water and infrastructure problems, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman had one answer: “No problem is insurmountable.” 

Despite some good rain last week, the water levels of the Nelson Mandela Bay metro remain low and Day Zero remains an imminent threat. While the plan was to switch about 40% of the city to emergency water that had to be collected at water points over the past weekend, this plan was not activated due to the slight reprieve afforded by the rain. 

The Churchill Dam, at critical levels last week, now has 107 days of water left, but there is very little water left in the other dams. On average, the city has about 2% of usable water left in its supply dams. 

Sooliman was speaking at the Elizabeth Donkin Psychiatric Hospital in Gqeberha, Nelson Mandela Bay, where his organisation, Gift of the Givers, completed a borehole with tanks to make sure that the facility will have water if the taps run dry.  

‘Resilient nation’

“We came out of the July unrest. We came out of Covid-19. We came out of apartheid before 1994. We survived all that. South Africans are a very giving nation. A very loving nation. They are a resilient nation. And they are a very patient nation,” Sooliman said.

The district manager for the Department of Health in Nelson Mandela Bay, Darlene de Vos, said the department was struggling with access to water, especially in the northern part of the city, where some clinics often had none. 

“Because there is no water for sanitation and handwashing, our staff will triage patients … see emergency cases; they will issue chronic medicine and then the facility has to close because it becomes an infection control risk.  

“The work that is being done currently by the business chamber, businesses, the municipality and Gift of the Givers is of vital importance to us as a health system and service.

imtiaz sooliman Gqeberha day zero
Dr Imtiaz Sooliman talks about the power of cooperation and caring for one another. On the left is Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber CEO Denise van Huyssteen. (Photo: Deon Ferreira).

“We also see a lot of water outages in the Uitenhage area. Rosedale Clinic at one point was without water for two weeks. I think it has more to do with fixing the water system than the actual water supply. Without water, a health facility cannot run. We are not able to maintain infection prevention. Hospitals have backup water supplies. Obviously, it is not as much as we would love them to have, but all of them have water tanks.  

“We are seeing infections caused by children playing in stagnant water. Kids love to play in dirty water and touch their lips and mouths. It is bacterial in most instances. We have not seen a remarkable increase, but we get up to four cases in a week. Surprisingly, more in the Uitenhage area,” De Vos said.  

Change in mentality

Sooliman said that he had seen a change in the way South Africans think about their country since 2020.  

“I have seen a change in the mentality of South Africans since 2020. When Covid-19 came, the CEOs started calling. They said: How do we save our people? How do we save our country? How do we make life better for everyone? They started taking a personal interest. When the unrest came in 2021 the corporates again came to the fore and said: How can we help? 

“Corporate South Africa has seen the importance of getting involved. Government is also realising that they can’t do this alone. I tell the government in no uncertain terms: This country does not belong to you. This country belongs to all of us. But when you say that, it means you must take responsibility. You can’t keep saying: What is the government doing? The reality is, 7.2 million people’s taxes can’t look after 62 million people.  

“We can sit and cry and let the country fall down or we can get up and stand up and do something about it,” he added. “We need 60 million South Africans to have the mentality that we are going to fix the country.  

“In the government, you have the good, the bad and the ugly. There are good guys who want to do the right things. We have to hold the hand of the good guys, take them through and change the system. 

“It is my speciality. I can bypass the system,” he laughed.  

“That is why I came here. I just came from a meeting now. All the [municipal] engineers came to see us this morning. We made one call late yesterday afternoon. This morning they were there. Total cooperation.”  

He said the organisation had received many offers of assistance in Nelson Mandela Bay. 

“Guys from big companies are coming forward. It is not about how much marketing they will get. The value you get is your humanity.” 

Drilling teams

He also gave a special word of thanks to the drilling teams working for the organisation who had all been away from home for the past month.  

“We got you from Durban and we brought you here. But you know that your fellow South Africans needed your help.”

Sooliman added that for their operations in Nelson Mandela Bay, they would use the services of a local geologist, SanMari Woithe. “We wanted to use local experts.”  

He said that because time was of the essence, after completing a borehole, the drilling teams move on to the next borehole, followed by a separate team which installs tanks and pumps.

borehole gqeberha gift of the givers
A spray of water blasts from a borehole drilled by Gift of the Givers in Gqeberha. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

“We haven’t done it like that before. But we do it differently now because time is against us.” Sooliman said they had successfully drilled three boreholes at schools where communities can access water.  

They had also cleaned an old borehole at the headquarters of the police’s K9 unit and made it operational again, and were busy completing a fourth borehole at the Gelvandale Stadium. 

Sooliman said they were also helping to ensure a water supply to the airport, which might run out of water. “Everywhere in this city there are springs coming from the ground. We need to see how to harvest that water.”  

He said it was imperative that every resident of the city take responsibility for their own water consumption.  

‘Fix your leak’

“We require each and every resident of this city, rich or poor, to fix your own toilet. Fix your leak. Fix your garden. Fix that tap. Every litre we save will be there tomorrow. As responsible citizens, we need to do that. We need to understand the value of water and look after it.” 

Sooliman said the model of cooperation that Gift of the Givers was implementing in the city could be replicated in other parts of South Africa. 

They plan to have 30 boreholes in place to prevent a humanitarian crisis if the city runs out of water from its dams.  

While Nelson Mandela Bay is serviced by the Nooitgedacht scheme that brings water from the Gariep Dam in the Free State, not all parts of the city have been connected to it due to project delays and contractual disputes.

Sooliman said they wanted to ensure that key institutions in the city have water.  

“There is no place for politics or ego; we are in a state of disaster and where cooperation, humanity, compassion and unconditional service in the interest of all our citizens are,” Sooliman said. 

Other projects the organisation is implementing include managing the 500,000 litres per day donation from the desalination plant at Cerebos to Gift of the Givers. Coca-Cola has donated the first of three 35,000-litre tankers for this. A second tanker will arrive this week.  

Teams from Gift of the Givers are also delivering bottled water to homes for the elderly, and the physically and mentally challenged. 

Sooliman said communities must let the organisation know if they have knowledge of disused boreholes. 

Inspiration

The Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber CEO, Denise van Huyssteen, said Gift of the Givers was a great inspiration. The chamber has been leading the advocacy for a drought mitigation plan and action to fix thousands of leaks in the city.  

“It has been absolutely inspiring to be around you. As a business community, we face a lot of challenges, but there is still hope. We all need to take responsibility and ownership of what is within our control. 

“It has been very heartening to see this collaboration. People are just stepping up to the plate.” 

She said the pharmaceutical company Aspen and Volkswagen SA had appointed teams to fix leaks in schools and assist the municipality. Van Huyssteen also appealed to residents to save as much water as they could. 

“It is critical for all stakeholders in the metro such as residents and businesses to pull together to reduce the severity of the water crisis. In tandem with the focus on reducing water losses, consumption levels also need to be addressed. 

borhole elizabeth donkin hospital
A Gift of the Givers drilling team cleans the borehole at Elizabeth Donkin Hospital. (Photo: Deon Ferreira).

“Our water consumption is way above the targeted limit. Consumers must immediately reduce their consumption levels… also implement water-saving solutions such as rainwater tanks…  identify water leaks in their premises and report them immediately.” 

Hospital personnel thanked Gift of the Givers and the drilling teams. 

Small boost from rainfall

The spokesperson for the Department of Water and Sanitation, Sputnik Ratau, said the Algoa Water Supply System had received a minimal boost from the recent rainfall in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, increasing from a low of 12.0% to 13.4%.  

“Hydrologists in the department said that the marginal increase has done very little to improve the low dam levels in the metro and expressed that water levels are likely to remain low for the remainder of the year unless it pours for 24 hours, with 50mm of rain received to get runoff to the dams.  

“The department has implored residents to cut down on their water usage as the current use exceeds the available supply, with the objective being to reduce total water use in the metro to below 230 million litres per day in total. This translates to about 180 litres per person per day for all use, including business, government buildings, civil society, as well as enhancing the response to water leaks, which will drastically improve the situation,” Ratau said. 

Luvuyo Bangazi, the spokesperson for the local joint operations committee managing the water crisis, said there had been a welcome drop in consumption of about three million litres of water a day in recent days. Last week, he said, the metro fixed 2,298 out of 3,000 outstanding leaks. DM/MC

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 2

  • Hats off to Gift of the Givers… brilliant work!
    To the Nelson Mandela Metro Municipality, SHAME ON YOU! You have known about this crisis for literally years, and yet you have done absolutely nothing to mitigate against it. Instead, an NGO has to pull your chestnuts out of the fire. SHAME ON YOU!

  • This is wonderful work and hats off to Gift of the Givers. But remember, the groundwater resource is NOT infinite…

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted