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Buy water or fall ill – the grim daily choice for poor Tumahole residents

Buy water or fall ill – the grim daily choice for poor Tumahole residents
Tumahole residents say water supplies in Parys and surrounding areas have deteriorated over the past five years and they now have to wait to collect water with buckets and bottles at specific times. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

Ngwathe Municipality has been providing contaminated water to residents for months and community leaders blame dilapidated infrastructure and rolling blackouts. The community wants alternatives immediately.

Mamodiehi Hlahane (40) will never forget how helpless she felt as she tackled the long trip to hospital with her six-month-old daughter who was suffering from severe diarrhoea. Hlahane knew the cause – contaminated water from the taps and the JoJo tanks all around Tumahole township in the Free State.

Hlahane lives in an informal settlement in Tumahole and had to walk kilometres from her shack to the nearest hospital, 30 minutes away. “We almost lost her, she was very weak. At the hospital they said she had lost a lot of water in her body, and her temperature was high. We are unemployed in the house, and it was hard to buy water every day for the children to drink. We as adults drink the dirty water.”

Residents of Tumahole, Parys, Schonkenville and surrounds cannot drink from their taps because the water is “dirty and has red worms in it”. Some Parys residents can afford to filter it, while others buy water to drink and cook with. They only use the tap water to clean, wash clothes and flush toilets, but sometimes it is so dirty that it’s not even good enough for cleaning. “If you wash a white cloth, when it dries it remains with brown marks. If you leave the water in a bucket, you can see brown soil or dirt  settling at the bottom,” said Hlahane.

Local authorities have not tested the water to identify the “red worms”.

Parys mayor Victoria de Beer told residents last week that the Department of Water and Sanitation and relevant stakeholders were trying to secure R66-million to fix the dysfunctional water-purification plants. This comes after De Beer’s house and a municipal building were burnt a month ago in protest.

Tumahole residents are forced to collect water since the liquid that comes out of their taps is undrinkable. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

“The Department of Water Affairs and Treasury have committed to finalising the process of approving and availing emergency procurement and funds to deal with the matter so that we can fix the clarifiers and filters,” De Beer said.

The water-treatment plants were affected by severe rotational rolling blackouts which would sometimes result in the area having only four hours of electricity per day.

Read in Daily Maverick:Thirst for basic services — Parys residents protest after years without running water” 

A manager at a clinic in Tumahole says the staff carry bought water for hand washing. She has a two-litre bottle of water on the window sill behind her, which she uses to drink and wash her hands, fruit and other things. “The toilets have gotten blocked so many times because of the soil in the water. The water is really dirty, so when you wash your hands and handle a child with diarrhoea, you are making the whole situation worse,” she said

Alternatively, they use hand sanitiser and the bought water to mix powdered medicine for patients.

After the protest, vehicles transporting water have been reluctant to enter the area and the clinic suffers as a result. “You can never find the service when you need it. I have called many times asking that the ‘waterkan’ (truck) comes to fill the water tank we have in the back, but they don’t show up,” said a clinic worker who wouldn’t disclose their name since most staff in departments are advised against speaking directly to the media.


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In August the operations manager had noted a rise in diarrhoea cases. On one day she remembers vividly, the clinic referred four people with severe dehydration to the hospital where a colleague told them they were receiving many referrals from surrounding clinics with similar cases.

Martha Fortein (69), who runs a daycare with 30 children, says she has had to buy drinking water for them using school fees. She says they use about 40 litres a day because they also use it to cook two meals. It costs R5 for 5l from the local supplier, but it can cost up to R30 depending on which brand is available at the local shops. 

Since realising the water is not going to be clean soon, some daycares in the neighbourhood have asked parents to bring a 5l or 10l container of shop-bought water for their children.

Fortein spends about R1,000 a month on water – money that would usually go towards food and learning materials.

Parys water supply crisis

Residents of Tumahole, Parys, Schonkenville and surrounds cannot drink from their taps. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

Since realising the water is not going to be clean soon, some daycares in the neighbourhood have asked parents to bring a 5l or 10l container of shop-bought water for their children. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

Fortein says her children had not been affected by the diarrhoea outbreak, but she acknowledged that primary schools in the township struggled when more than half of the children became sick. The principal at Aha Setjhaba Primary School says his pupils might have been spared thanks to a borehole in the schoolyard that feeds into four JoJo tanks, which helps provide clean water.

Last Wednesday, community leader Freddy Nqaba said the water used to be so clean “it looked like it has a fizzy whiteness to it, that shows that maybe it just got cleaned”. 

“Some children have died from this dirty water. We need our leaders to stop with the politics and divisions, pull together, and solve this water issue,” he said. 

“When they are sitting in those offices getting paid to bring water to people or lead, don’t they have consciences, guilt, something that says to them, ‘I am here for a reason, I shouldn’t just eat the money and let my people suffer’.” DM/MC

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Barrie Lewis says:

    I know it’s easy to make suggestions when you are one of the well to do. We had the money to build an underground reservoir to store rainwater. It was simple and ten years ago cost R15,000. Now we have pristine free water all year round.
    Communities like those in Tumahole have one big advantage; they have skilled unemployed workers. Bricklayers and plasterers; that’s all that’s needed and three strong men to dig the hole. 5m in diameter and 2m deep.
    Throw a concrete slab with reinforcing, build a double brick wall, plaster and roof. It’s not rocket science.
    Free pristine water for life. Get advice on water proofing to go in the plaster.

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