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Residents in drought-hit Nelson Mandela Bay warned — save water now or mayor will come knocking

Residents in drought-hit Nelson Mandela Bay warned — save water now or mayor will come knocking
Nelson Mandela Bay Executive Mayor Retief Odendaal (right) with mayoral committee member Dries van der Westhuyzen and the metro’s director of water distribution Joseph Tsatsire. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

People who use excessive amounts of water in Nelson Mandela Bay can soon expect a visit from executive mayor Retief Odendaal. This comes as the city ramps up emergency measures while large dams fall to their lowest levels yet.

Rain was predicted for Nelson Mandela Bay on Sunday. It never arrived. 

“I am not someone who checks the weather app on my phone a lot,” Nelson Mandela Bay executive mayor Retief Odendaal said. “But I did look a few times when the app said it would rain, and it didn’t. It is very frustrating.” 

It’s this state of affairs that is making the energetic mayor anxious. 

water mayor nelson mandela bay

Nelson Mandela Bay Metro Executive Mayor Retief Odendaal (centre), the metro’s director for water and sanitation Barry Martin and engineer Matthew Hill at the St Georges Park wellfields project. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

“We do not have enough water. The system is under severe pressure,” he said. 

“I love my garden, and I am tired of watering my plants with tank water and a watering can. I never thought I would say this, but I long to use a hosepipe again.”

He said it was difficult to build trust with the public while the city was losing water through leaks, but he was hoping the metro could turn this around by the end of February.

Little chance of rain

Resident weatherman Garth Sampson said the prospects of rain are low right now.

“We are at the height of summer — the driest part of the year in Nelson Mandela Bay… we are lucky if we get a few showers.”

Sampson said, traditionally, the area received rain from March to November, with most falling during winter.

For Nelson Mandela Bay to get out of its current precarious situation, 50mm of rain must fall in 24 hours over the Langkloof, the catchment area for the dams.

The metro has invested R1.2-billion in water augmentation projects to mitigate the drought.

Odendaal said that if Phase 3 of the Nooitgedacht Water Scheme (bringing water from the Orange River) had been finished in time, dam levels would have looked more encouraging.

Phase 3 was financed by the national government and was beset by problems. In its final stages, payment delays to contractors had hampered the commissioning of the project for months, at a time when the city’s water shortage had already reached critical levels.

Now that Phase 3 has been completed, Nooitgedacht will be a crucial factor in the city’s survival if the dams fail. But even so, it will take until October to get the upgraded pumps installed and running.

Dam levels

Combined dam levels are currently standing at 8.8%.

The Impofu Dam, the biggest dam from which the city extracts its water, is at its lowest level in history, with only 1% of useable water left. 

In 2022, just as access to the dams was about to be cut off due to low levels, it finally rained, pushing dam levels into a safer zone. “A miracle happened then,” Odendaal said.

Odendaal said they were preserving the water in another of the dams, the Churchill Dam, which now holds about eight million litres of water. However, any attempts at extraction would be hampered by rolling blackouts of up to six hours a day.

He congratulated the city’s water directors, Joseph Tsatsire and Barry Martin, for keeping the water flowing throughout December and early January — a bumper tourism season for the metro. 

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “They excelled under difficult circumstances.”

Investment challenge

“The thing is,” Odendaal said, “Nelson Mandela Bay should have water security. The Nooitgedacht Scheme is a lifeline. Without water, it will be challenging to attract investment to the city.”

He said the metro’s council had approved the commissioning of a water services plan and that the Department of Water and Sanitation would assist.

“The situation is becoming more severe by the day,” he said. “Climate change in this city means the droughts will get longer and more intense. We have to deal with it.”

With the water department, the city has spent more than R1.2-billion on implementing several water augmentation and drought mitigation projects. By the end of March 2023, nine of these projects will be online.

Among the greatest challenges in Nelson Mandela Bay is that it is one of the most sprawling metros in the country, making it more difficult to pump water to every part of it.

water mayor nelson mandela bay

Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Retief Odendaal at the St George’s Park wellfields project. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

On Friday, Odendaal opened the latest of a series of groundwater schemes. This water is added to the city’s available resources to reduce stress on dams.

Big consumers, crumbling infrastructure

However, he said residents still needed to reduce their consumption to 50 litres per person per day.

“Every day, we use more water than we have… some residents are struggling with debilitating water outages, and it can be prevented. If you still use your washing machine daily, you are part of the problem,” he said.

“The other day, I thought I must show people how to take a stop-start shower. My wife said that might be a bit too extreme,” he laughed.

Odendaal’s office has accessed data identifying high water users in the metro.

“I am coming to visit and have a chat. We won’t name and shame, but we will publish it… then people will be shocked,” he said.

Odendaal and his coalition government are racing to fix the city’s crumbling infrastructure. Apart from the drought, the sewage system is on its last legs. 

“We are offering contract posts to retired engineers. I am hoping this will be the legacy of this administration,” he said. 

“Look, we made mistakes… We invested R300-million in the Coega Kop water treatment works. The projected yield was originally 20 megalitres — now it will only be 10.”

Dam extraction cutbacks

The metro expected the Department of Water and Sanitation to place more restrictions on their extractions from the dams in the coming weeks. 

“Not enough people are taking the situation seriously. We are simply using too much water… we are over the target of 230 megalitres per day. We have become complacent about water use and saving water, partly due to the focus shifting to the load shedding crisis, but we cannot take our eyes off this ball.

“The risk of areas intermittently running out of water remains extremely high, and Nooitgedacht is not the silver bullet everyone imagines it to be,” warned Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber CEO, Denise van Huyssteen.

She said investment, jobs and an environment conducive to economic growth was dependent on water security.

“We acknowledge that consumers lay the blame for the crisis [on] the lack of maintenance of the metro’s water infrastructure and are thus reluctant to play their part and reduce their water consumption. 

“They have a valid point, but in order to create a water-resilient future, we all have to take responsibility and play our part — the municipality on the supply side and consumers on the demand side,” said Van Huyssteen

“Consumers who waste water, don’t reuse greywater, and, worst of all, fill tanks meant for rainwater with municipal water, are making the problem worse.

Water-scarce area

“It is time that the message sinks in that we live in a water-scarce area, and that we need to become water-resilient and self-reliant. This is not only up to the government, but to all of us as individuals, households and businesses,” she said.

“It is unacceptable that 44% of our treated water is ‘non-revenue’ water that is stolen or wasted without being billed, and over 30% of this is due to leaks,” she said.

The Chamber introduced an Adopt-a-Leak intervention that ended in 2022, with local businesses contributing voluntarily to a project which saved 1.6 million litres of water a day by repairing leaks in more than 4,200 households, resulting in a 23% drop in water consumption across seven areas of the metro.

Van Huyssteen said the initiative had shown how to tackle leaks by targeting hotspot areas and measuring progress by litres saved rather than by the number of leaks.

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“We have shared the lessons learnt and best practices from this project and hope that the municipality will adopt these to pursue a more high-impact approach to leak reduction in the quickest possible time,” she said.

The Business Chamber’s water task team lead, Basil Mugwagwa, said businesses needed to be responsible in a resource-scarce environment by using fewer resources to achieve the same goals without compromising quality.

“Process optimisation — using less energy and water to achieve the same output — need not always cost money. Well-executed maintenance programmes are a source of efficiency — where heat transfer, process flow and process cooling are concerned, clean, efficient systems will demand less water than equipment that is not optimally maintained,” he added.

Mugwagwa also highlighted that most large businesses have big enough roofs to harvest rainwater and reduce their reliance on municipal water. DM/MC

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