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Rolling blackouts blamed for water outages in Western Cape municipalities

Rolling blackouts blamed for water outages in Western Cape municipalities
Residents of Vanrhynsdorp in the Matzikama municipality in the Western Cape had dirty drinking water for days, which the municipality blames on the effect of rolling blackouts on municipal water pumps. (Photo: Brenton Geach)

Water outages have occurred in 18 of the 24 local municipalities in the Western Cape after prolonged bouts of rolling blackouts.

The mayor of Matzikama has apologised for the municipality’s poor water quality and laid the blame for it squarely on the prolonged power cuts which have affected the water supply. It is among several municipalities in the Western Cape where the ongoing rolling blackouts have affected the water supply.

“As executive mayor, on behalf of the Matzikama Municipality, I apologise for the quality of the water,” said Mayor Johan van der Hoven in a statement. 

The statement was released in response to complaints by residents about the quality of water in the municipality, about 300km north of Cape Town, along the N7 highway. The municipality consists of the towns of Vredendal, Ebenhaeser, Klawer and Vanrhynsdorp — all of which have been affected by the ongoing issues with water.

In Facebook posts on community groups, several community members have complained of brown water coming out of taps. 

‘Discoloured water’

One resident, Rodney Lackay, told Daily Maverick the water had been “brown and discoloured”. He said power cuts weren’t new and questioned whether there was another reason for the water problems.

Lackay also asked why the municipality issued the statement only on social media platforms when many residents did not have access to these platforms.

In a statement released on Tuesday evening, Van der Hoven said: “Load shedding is and will always be the main reason that influences the water supply to the reservoirs. The process of hiring generators has already been put into motion.”

The mayor said that because of recent heavy rainfalls in the area, “mud got into the system and put a lot of pressure on the filters” of the reservoirs. Van der Hoven said an emergency meeting was held on Tuesday with the municipality’s technical staff, who were working “24 hours to monitor and normalise the situation. You can be assured that it wasn’t due to deliberate actions and the municipality is doing everything possible to solve the problem.” 

Matzikama’s water is supplied by the Clanwilliam Dam. The Western Cape MEC for Local Government, Anton Bredell, told Daily Maverick the dam was managed by the national Department of Water and Sanitation and was currently 63.62% full.

Matzikama is not alone in suffering water problems associated with power cuts. This week, News24 reported that Beaufort West experienced water cuts, with municipal officials also indicating that rolling blackouts were affecting water supply processes.

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Bitou Municipality (Plettenberg Bay) issued a press release on Wednesday afternoon asking residents and holidaymakers to use water sparingly during scheduled power cuts as it would help the municipality deal with operational challenges 

“Prolonged periods of load shedding are impacting on our water treatment plants and ability to pump water to distribution reservoirs in the Bitou supply area. Storage capacity in our distribution reservoirs can run low rapidly during periods of load shedding combined with hot summer conditions when residents and holiday visitors tend to use more water,” the municipality said. 

Western Cape government response 

In response to queries by Daily Maverick, Bredell said water and sewage challenges were directly linked to interruptions in the electricity supply.

“Most water systems, consisting of boreholes, pump stations, treatment works and reservoirs, rely on an uninterrupted and stable electricity network to function.”

He said some systems were able to function or recover quickly after a short period of power cuts; “however, prolonged load shedding results in the systems not being able to meet the required water demand”. 

Bredell said the Department of Local Government had conducted a survey with municipalities which found that smaller municipalities start having challenges with prolonged Stage 4 power cuts, while larger municipalities are affected after prolonged Stage 6 power cuts.

“Many of the smaller municipalities have indicated that the cost of diesel is a strain on their operational budgets,” said Bredell. 

“Load shedding results in reservoirs not filling up to the correct level, which in turn affects the pressure in the distribution pipe network. Low pressure can lead to elevated neighbourhoods experiencing reduced supply or no water at all. Once normal pressure can be restored, there is the risk of pipe bursts due to large pressure differences that might exist in the network.”  

Sewage systems — which are designed for a continuous flow of water — were affected too, said Bredell.

“Load shedding disrupts this, and it can lead to blockages, spills with environmental pollution and health risks associated,” said Bredell.

Daily Maverick this week reported that Fish Hoek Beach had been closed because of a “sewer overflow”. The beach has since been reopened.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Sewage pollution closes yet another South African beach, this time in Cape Town

Bredell said his department was in constant talks with municipalities about the issue. At least 18 of the 24 municipalities in the province were affected, including Matzikama.

Water issues are not new for the province. Daily Maverick reported that Knysna had implemented water restrictions due to abnormally low rainfall in November and low river levels.

Eskom has said Stage 4 power cuts would be implemented from 5am on Wednesday, 21 December until further notice. DM


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