MULTIPLE SYSTEM FAILURES
R400m later, Makhanda is still facing a catastrophic water crisis
Despite hundreds of millions paid by the government for the upgrade of the James Kleynhans Water Treatment Works in Makhanda, the completion of which is now five years behind schedule, crumbling infrastructure and pump problems are wreaking havoc on the town’s water supply.
Based on notices issued by the Makana Local Municipality alone, there have been more than 100 water outages in Makhanda since the start of 2023.
During a recent sitting of Parliament, the mayors of the Sarah Baartman District Municipality and the Makana Local Municipality said the functions performed by the Amatola Water Board, the implementing agent for the Department of Water and Sanitation, should be returned to them as they are blamed for water shortages by residents in any event.
Makhanda community leader Lungile Mxube said the minister of water and sanitation should place the water department at the Makhanda Municipality under administration and take over its functions.
This, he said must include a forensic investigation into the money spent on the James Kleynhans Water Treatment Works.
“More must be invested in water education. Government must recognise local engineers. They must develop a water intervention plan. We currently have a municipality that doesn’t listen to the people.”
Mxube said many highly skilled engineers had offered their skills to the municipality to solve the crisis.
Water quality in Makhanda is still below safe South African standards and a boil-before-drinking notice has been issued for the town.
In 2020, Makhanda residents, led by the Unemployed People’s Movement and the Residents Association, won a groundbreaking ruling in the high court after a judge found that the provision of services was so bad and/or non-existent that it was unconstitutional.
Judge Irma Stretch ruled that the municipal council should be dissolved. However, Premier Oscar Mabuyane appealed against this ruling and a settlement was reached in the Supreme Court of Appeal that the financial recovery plan for the municipality would be implemented.
The incomplete status of the James Kleynhans Water Treatment Works contributes significantly to the water woes in Makhanda.
The government has spent close to R400-million on the project, which has been beset with problems.
According to a presentation by the Amatola Water Board in Parliament earlier this year, the project was significantly delayed by the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020.
“The lockdowns also brought about increases in costs of various materials and equipment for the project. The contractor initially appointed experienced financial difficulties which slowed the progress of activities and ultimately [caused the] liquidation of the company, which resulted in the contract being terminated,” Parliament heard.
“Procurement processes to appoint a new contractor were also delayed as the advertisement of the tender had to be repeated due to unresponsive bids during the first round. The contractor was eventually appointed and has been on site since January 2023,” the explanation continued.
Officials said an estimated R88.4-million was required to complete Phase 2 of the project by December 2023.
Makhanda has two water treatment works — the Waainek Water Treatment Works on the western side and the James Kleynhans Water Treatment Works on the eastern side. The two systems are interconnected.
The Waainek plant has a capacity of eight megalitres a day and serves the town area, the prison, hospitals and Rhodes University. Raw water is pumped to this system from Howieson’s Poort Reservoir and Settlers Dam.
The James Kleynhans system, which mainly serves the townships, is supplied by the Lower Orange-Fish Water Scheme through various canal and river systems and stored at the Glen Melville Dam.
The plant is designed to supply 10 megalitres a day, but because of problems at the Waainek plant, it often has to produce up to 13 megalitres of treated water.
The multimillion-rand upgrade is being done to ensure that the James Kleynhans Water Treatment Works will be able to supply 20 megalitres of water a day.
The original cost of the project in 2013 was R101-million and it was estimated that it would be completed by 2018. The Makana Local Municipality was placed under administration in 2016. The budget was revised to R237.6-million after additional work was done to improve management, efficiency and operations at the plant.
According to documentation before Parliament, the first contractor’s contract was terminated because of poor performance. A second contractor was appointed, but this company was liquidated. An additional R175-million was required to complete the project, necessitated by delays, terminations, cost overruns and additional work.
The Special Investigating Unit is investigating the escalating costs of the contract.
The impact of rolling blackouts
Load shedding has wreaked havoc on Makhanda’s water supply, and “unhealthy reservoir” levels led to water outages on 7, 8, 9 and 11 January as a one-day-on, one-day-off schedule was implemented and night restrictions were introduced, which remain in place.
On 15 January, a pipe burst knocked out the water supply to Rhodes University and Upper Sunnyside. The burst was difficult to locate and repairs were completed only on 21 January. In addition, on 19 January two lightning strikes disabled most of the pumps at the waterworks, leaving only one pump operational and only one side of the town with water.
On 25 January, the municipality declared its intention to provide “daily water”. This lasted until 28 January, when the municipality declared that load shedding was “more than the system can handle” and the water supply was shut down until 30 January.
Then, on 2 February, there was “some provision of water”, but two days later the one-day-on, one-day-off schedule resumed.
On 11 March, “technical glitches” led to the off-day being extended by another 24 hours. On 21 March, the pumps at the waterworks flooded after an Eskom power failure.
This “unfortunate situation”, as the municipality described it, led to an extended water outage, especially on the eastern side of the town. By 24 March all the reservoirs on the eastern side were empty. Power was restored to the water treatment works on 26 March, but it was only operating at 50% capacity. Water was restored on 28 March for the western side and on 29 March for the eastern side.
On 5 April, the entire town had no water due to routine maintenance of the system. There was another outage on 7 April. On 16 April, a major leak was discovered, leading to another water outage.
On 20 April, there was a “technical issue” at Howieson’s Poort that took seven weeks to solve.
On 22 April, the municipality said “water supply was not possible” as neither of the two pumps was working and a cable had been stolen. Water supply was not possible either on 25 April.
The schedule was changed to allow for two days that the water would be off and one day of water.
There was a new problem at Howieson’s Poort on 2 May, involving suction pressure. Water was restored to the town on 5 May, but the supply was diminished as the Howieson’s Poort problem was still not resolved.
On 8 May, divers were sent to check what was going on. They couldn’t help and a specialist team was called in. High-lying reservoirs ran dry.
On 13 May, the pump at Howieson’s Poort was tested and found to have a leak.
This pump had to go to the manufacturer’s premises for more testing, but the truck got stuck on a road in the Thomas Baines Nature Reserve.
The Makhanda Residents Association went to court to apply for more information on the missing pumps at the town’s waterworks. The group’s Professor Phillip Machanik said they received very vague answers.
On 9 June, residents were warned to “prepare for more constrained supply” and water carting resumed.
On 10 June, divers completed removing overgrown debris and rusted metal at Howieson’s Poort, and scoured valves and pipelines.
“We hope,” the municipality stated in a notice to residents, “that there will be a breakthrough.”
But then a malfunctioning pump at the James Kleynhans Water Treatment Works left the town without water once again. The municipality promised to restore water on 11 June.
But on Tuesday, 13 June the municipality noted that there was now a leak in a major pump.
“It is our prayer that the leak is not a complicated one, as the plan is to open for water provision tomorrow, 14/06,” the notice to residents read.
And indeed, the town’s water supply was restored on Wednesday, 14 June. DM