Maverick Citizen

ORANGE RIVER FLOODS, PART ONE

Riverside Northern Cape residents face uncertainty and hunger as floodwaters rise

Riverside Northern Cape residents face uncertainty and hunger as floodwaters rise
Randy Mathys sits in the shade under a tree in front of his reed house on the bank of the flooded Orange River on Sandeiland near Keimoes in the Northern Cape on Saturday, February 25 2023. (Photo: David Harrison)

The release of high volumes of water from the Vaal and Bloemhof dams in recent weeks has resulted in floods around the Orange River in the Northern Cape. People in riverside municipalities have become increasingly cut off as bridges and roads are submerged.

Large areas along the Orange River in the Northern Cape are being flooded, with rising water levels affecting riverside residents and homes in the Dawid Kruiper and Kai !Garib local municipalities, among others.

The region along this stretch of the river is largely made up of a network of “islands” – Kanoneiland, Rooikopeiland and Sandkopeiland – accessible via bridges. However, when the river floods, the already fractured landscape breaks down even further and some communities are left completely cut off as bridges are submerged and crop fields become basins of water.

Among the handful of homes on Sand Eiland – an area just outside the town of Keimoes in Kai !Garib Municipality – the shack that Randy Matthys shares with his aunt is closest to the river, built from the reeds that cover its banks. The latest flooding has brought water within metres of his back door.

“We’ve already packed our stuff, so if we have to move out our stuff is ready. At this moment, I don’t know [where we will go]. Maybe down there by my uncle’s house, when the water is higher,” said Matthys. 

Sand Eiland is one of six islands in the Kai !Garib Municipality that have been cut off because their bridges are under water, according to the ZF Mgcawu District Municipality. The others are Meyers Eiland, Sandkop Eiland, Kanoneiland, Lanklaas Eiland and Perde Eiland.

A young boy plays on a wooden raft and a man cools off in the afternoon heat at the flooded Orange River crossing bridge on Sandeiland near Keimoes in the Northern Cape on Friday evening, February 24 2023. (Photo: David Harrison)

Many residents of Sand Eiland were still in their homes when Maverick Citizen visited on Saturday, 25 February, several days after the bridge into the area had been submerged. The only way to cross the water covering the bridge, other than swimming, was a one-person kayak.

“We can’t go to town to fetch groceries or things like that… At times like this, we’re supposed to buy enough food [to last] until the water reaches a normal level,” said Matthys, adding that stocking up in this way was not possible for many on the island with limited income. 

The flooding in the lower Orange and Vaal river systems is largely a result of high volumes being released from the Vaal Dam, on the border of Gauteng and the Free State, and the Bloemhof Dam, on the border with North West and the Free State.

Read more in Daily Maverick:SA Weather Service issues alerts as government responds to flood chaos across the country

The Department of Water and Sanitation has been implementing dam safety protocols due to heavy rains in most parts of the country. The first floodgate at the Vaal Dam was opened on 11 February, and by 18 February at least 12 had been opened, the department said on 21 February.

Leonie Olivier (right) along with her partner’s mother, Magdalena Van Wyk, seek out some respite from the intense midday heat at their house on Sandeiland near Keimoes in the Northern Cape on Saturday, 25 February 2023.(Photo: David Harrison)

Department spokesperson Wisane Mavasa said the department had provided regular updates on the status of water levels in the dams through various local platforms along the Orange and Vaal river systems. Where there was a possibility of flooding, early warning systems had been used.

“It is also important to note that, since rainfall and floods are natural phenomena and control of the events may be limited, the department continues to advise against putting essential services and human settlements within parts of the floodplains where there is likelihood of frequent flooding – that is, within a one-in-100-year floodline,” said Mavasa.

The department began closing floodgates at the Vaal Dam on Saturday, 25 February, after its hydrological monitoring and forecasting system showed a substantial decrease in water capacity at the dam. On Sunday, seven gates remained open and water capacity was 111%.

The levels at Bloemhof Dam were at 107%, with discharge reduced from 3,200 to 2,800 cubic metres per second.

“Water levels at Lower Orange River and Lower Vaal River remain high and may take a while to respond to the reduced flows from both the upstream Orange and Vaal rivers,” the department said.

The department’s data shows that the flow of the Orange River at Upington in the Dawid Kruiper Municipality was 4,362.56 cubic metres per second on Tuesday, 28 February. Just six days earlier, on 22 February, it was 2,927 cubic metres per second.

Wiseman Msiska sits under a tree seeking some shade in the heat of the day on Sandeiland near Keimoes in the Northern Cape on Saturday, 25 February 2023. (Photo: David Harrison)

Low-lying communities

When the river floods and the bridge onto Sand Eiland is submerged, Leonie Olifier’s family struggles with access to food. Olifier has lived on the island for 12 years, working on the local vineyards, and shares her home with two sons, her boyfriend and his mother. 

“My seven-year-old son, he eats a lot. He and the 10-year-old son and the father, the three of them eat a lot,” she told Maverick Citizen. “My income is just month to month… There is no time, like now, that I can take out [money] and say, ‘go to the shop quickly’.”

Read more in Daily Maverick:Parys residents in the Free State pick up the pieces after Vaal River bursts its banks

Olifier’s boyfriend sometimes makes the trip across the submerged bridge for supplies, but if the police catch him, they stop him, she said.

“When he comes to the other side, then the police are on him. Then they want to know how he came through,” she said. “The police say we shouldn’t go through … but then my man says, ‘What must my mother eat? What must my mother drink?’”

Electricity can only be bought by crossing the bridge, continued Olifier. She fears what will happen if her boyfriend’s mother is left to sit in the dark.

“Something might happen, then I don’t know. She might hit the wall … then who is to blame?” she said, adding that there are no health services on Sand Eiland.

Elsobé Mathys in front of her home on Sandeiland in the Orange River near Keimoes in the Northern Cape on Saturday afternoon, 25 February 2023. (Photo: David Harrison)

When the bridge is flooded, access to clean water is restricted. Residents drink from the canal that carries river water across the island, according to Olifier.

“Many of the little children have to go to the hospital because of the water. Last year, in the flood, they went through to hospital,” she said. “Even if you boil the water, its colour remains the same.”

The bridge to Sand Eiland last flooded in January 2023, said Wiseman Msiska, who lives on the island. Each time the water rises, residents face a shortage of food and clean water.

“[Our children] have to go out past the water [for school], but now because of the water, the students can’t go,” he said. “It is a huge problem because … the children can’t pass … then they have to wait until the water comes down, then they can go to school.”

Teachers at the local schools recommended that parents send their children to stay with communities on the other side of the flooded bridge, said Elsobe Mathys, who has lived on Sand Eiland for more than four years. However, she was reluctant to send her child away for so long, saying it could be a month or two before the water dropped below the bridge again.

“I’m afraid we might get hungry,” she said. “We just have to pray to the lord that the water will go down soon.”

Several small communites living on islands in the Orange River have been cut off from the mainland due to rising water levels over the last week. Sara Simon (centre) and Wilhelmina Kejane, seen holding baby Dola, along Nikki Steenkamp (sitting) living on farm land on Kanoneiland near Upington have experienced flooding before and are worried that it will happen again as water levels have been predicted to continue to rise. (Photo: David Harrison)


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According to the ZF Mgcawu District Municipality, families from those islands in the Kai !Garib Municipality that were cut off have been evacuated and are being accommodated elsewhere.

Read more in Daily Maverick:Flooding disaster – see map of all districts affected across South Africa

When asked about the people who remained on Sand Eiland, Martha Clarke, communications manager for the district municipality, said that “most families did leave one or two family members behind who will take care of the property and the assets, hence there will be families in their homes. These will be the ones tasked with looking after the home in most cases.

“The South African Police Service and [the South African National Roads Agency] … have taken the responsibility upon themselves of ensuring the safety of people’s lives. Therefore, residents will not be allowed to cross flooded bridges as they please … if residents come out of [islands], they cannot be allowed to return to those islands that are heavily flooded.

“As far as possible, we urge residents to come out of the islands and move to places of safety because right now, our mission is to save lives.”

Children from a small community living on farming land on Kanoneiland near Upington have a look at the fast flowing flood waters of the Orange River on Sunday morning, 26 February 2023. (Photo: David Harrison)

Finding shelter

In many of the lower-income communities scattered throughout the Dawid Kruiper and Kai !Garib local municipalities, residents rely on their employers for protection during the floods. 

Workers from the small Pokkies Eiland on the river in Upington were moved to alternative accommodation by local farm owners, according to Patrick Williams, spokesperson for the Dawid Kruiper Municipality. About 34 households were evacuated.

“Dawid Kruiper disaster [management] is in the process of finding out what their current location and situation is,” he said.

For a small community on Kanoneiland – the largest island on the Orange River, about 35 minutes from Upington – residents’ ability to evacuate is similarly dependent on their work situation. The riverside settlement is connected to the main part of the island by a small bridge that is at high risk for flooding.

Baby Mokgothu outside her home on Kanoneiland, an the island in the Orange River near Upington, just before leaving to go to work early on Sunday morning, 26 February 2023. (Photo: David Harrison)

“We’re still watching the water; if it goes higher, we will leave,” said resident Sara Simon. “We just have to go to the employers’ stores. We will stay there until the water recedes.

“On the other hand, there are people here who do not have a farmer. Now we don’t know if we … have to go out, where do they go?”

One such person is elderly resident Wilhelmina Kejane. She is unemployed and her son is unable to work because his right arm is disabled. If the bridge floods she does not know who will help her.

“We are very uneasy,” she said. “We cannot sleep well.”

The bridge last flooded in 2011, leaving Simon and other residents stranded. They struggled to obtain food since there were no shops on their side of the bridge.

“No one supplies us … I stay with my sister and her boyfriend here. Their boss told them to buy a lot of food because when there’s water on the bridge, they can’t go to the shops,” said Baby Mokgothu, another resident. “The others [in the community] are not working, so [for them] it’s not possible.”

Read more in Daily Maverick:Flood wreaks havoc on Eastern Cape after weekend of torrential rain

While Mokgothu’s employer at the local African Vineyard hotel has offered her a place to stay if she needs it, she worries about what will happen to her home if it floods.

“Maybe our things in our houses, we will lose it. We can’t get them out because we don’t have transport to take it out. We don’t have storage,” she said.

According to Williams and the ZF Mgcawu District Municipality, to date there has not been any loss of life as a result of the floods in the area. Various government departments were assisting the district municipality to help residents in need.

“With the different teams in place, we are ready to minimise and mitigate the impact of the rising water levels,” the district municipality said. “We urge members of the public to be vigilant and avoid areas with high water levels and keep themselves and others safe.” DM/MC

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  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Don’t worry, the Gift of the Givers will be there shortly with help – no sign of any political party doing their bit though…once again missing the opportunity to show they care about the people and not just about feeding their own faces and lining their pockets!

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