GHOSTS OF NEGLECT
How two Western Cape towns ran dry – Coke bottles, missing director, ageing canals, broken pipes
Residents and businesses in the water-troubled Matzikama Municipality on the Western Cape coast are trying to recover from a week in which the taps ran dry. The municipality says it is trying to solve the water supply problems permanently, while residents of the two towns that are most affected are concerned not only about their health but for the businesses that provide crucial jobs in the northernmost part of the province.
‘You can do nothing without any water – you can’t do personal hygiene, you can’t run a business without water,” said Amanda Beets from the Vanrhynsdorp Business Forum. Recently, Vanrhynsdorp and neighbouring Vredendal went more than seven days without water. While the municipality and residents have tried to recover from the crisis, the ghosts of a lack of infrastructure, proper communication and not filling a key vacant municipal position still linger.
At the end of August, Daily Maverick received frantic calls and messages from residents of Vanrhynsdorp and Vredendal, asking for help. Last week, we visited the area to speak to residents and businesses about the issue.
Daily Maverick previously reported on the water crisis in the area:
Beets, who chairs the local business forum, spoke to Daily Maverick from her store in Vanrhynsdorp about the difficulties in operating her business. She described it as “rough” after having no water for several days.
“Actually, you’re boycotted for the day… I do light suppers, you can’t do meals because you can’t prepare supper, you can’t do the dishes, you can’t serve coffee,” she said. Beets owned a store that sold coffee, meals and various hardware supplies.
What was even more difficult was keeping hygiene during the crisis, she added. “It’s difficult, especially for women to keep personal hygiene, it’s not pleasant. I think the supermarket’s making money from spray bottles,” she laughed.
On a more serious note, Beet said it was incredibly stressful for businesses in the area, with no supply during the peak part of the annual flower season. Vanrhynsdorp, which is known for its blooms, is the last stop before Niewoudtville in the Northern Cape, another popular spot to see spring flowers.
“The last two weeks, it had a big impact as it was the crowning of the flower season,” said Beets.
The business forum represents 69 informal and formal businesses in Vanrhynsdorp and Beets said the majority are guesthouses and restaurants. “I have a lot of contact with people who run guesthouses. They had to turn people away to other towns because people didn’t want to pay for accommodation and weren’t able to shower.”
It’s not nice – you need to wash and have clean clothes, and your underwear needs to be cleaned. It’s not right, you feel uncomfortable.
Daily Maverick reporters experienced this first-hand when the guesthouse owners warned us that the water had been cut off the entire day and there might not be any to shower.
Beets told Daily Maverick that while the water had been off for 10 days in total, they were in constant touch with the municipality, and she praised acting municipal manager Lionel Phillips for providing feedback.
It was not only the businesses affected by the water shortage. In Vredendal, about 25km away from Vanrhynsdorp, residents also suffered.
Anna Titus (41) described the lack of water as “not nice”. She stood near a communal tap in the Mangaung informal settlement as she spoke to Daily Maverick. “My husband needed to bring drinking water from work and I couldn’t wash the children’s school clothes.
“It’s not nice – you need to wash and have clean clothes, and your underwear needs to be cleaned. It’s not right, you feel uncomfortable,” said Titus. Her daughter’s school even told parents that pupils could wear regular clothes since washing uniforms was out of the question.
“But I feel that’s not right, it feels like you’re going to a party when you wear regular clothes, not your school clothes,” she said.
Also, Titus described the drinking water provided by the municipality as “dirty”.
“If you drink that water you don’t feel right. My child’s tummy was running.”
Then there were the long waiting periods to get water, as well as not being able to walk to the water tankers because “if I leave my house, then things go missing”. She had to pay boys to collect her much-needed water.
“This business is really….” she said, but couldn’t find the words to complete her thoughts.
While they do not have toilets in their yards, they needed to use communal toilets, which are a couple of shacks away from theirs. Ultimately, Titus and her family used bucket toilets.
“She’s a girl,” said Titus, pointing to her 14-year-old daughter Jaree, adding: “She goes to school, she gets her period – every morning she needs to wash.”
Another resident of the informal settlement, Michael Dauge (28), told Daily Maverick that during the water shortage it was difficult for him, his girlfriend and their two-year-old son. His son suffered from eczema and they could not wash him properly. “I have to keep getting medication such as cream for his skin,” said Dauge, who was unemployed.
“We had to walk point to point to collect water because we don’t have taps in our yards,” he said.
But how did two towns suffer a water shortage?
Matzikama Municipality’s acting municipal manager, Lionel Phillips, said the municipality received water from the Clanwilliam Dam. In an interview with Daily Maverick this week, he said that usually between April and September repairs to the municipality’s canal system were necessary “because the canal is way past its lifespan”.
Phillips explained that the canals would be closed for two weeks, then reopened for a week to allow water to be pumped into raw-water dams which supply Vredendal and Vanrhynsdorp. At the same time, the municipality embarked on a process to improve the water network by building a bigger pipeline.
There were very strange objects… which prevented that pump from pumping at full capacity – 2l Coke bottles, there were containers in there, milk cartons.
“So, the first kind of problem that happened and contributed to this challenge was when the contractor damaged one of the mains that supply the raw-water dam with water,” he said. The pipeline then broke.
This occurred during the week the canal was open. “It took us about two days to fix the pipeline because we needed to get to Cape Town,” explained Phillips. He clarified that the materials to fix the pipeline had to be flown from Johannesburg. Then, someone had to drive to Cape Town, collect the materials and bring them to the municipality. At that point the raw-water dams couldn’t be filled. Vredendal and Vanrhynsdorp residents were then urged to start using water sparingly.
“Then we almost made it,” said Phillips. However, the pumps ran dry. When the municipality was able to pump water, the infrastructure was not working. Despite bringing in engineers from mining companies, the municipality could not pump water from its canal system. Engineers from the Western Cape government also were called to help. Phillips said “it took us forever and a day” to discover that they could not pump at full capacity from their canal pump station. By the fourth or fifth day, working non-stop, the municipality was able to supply Vanrhynsdorp and Vredendal with water, although not the northern section of Vredendal South.
“Because the system ran dry it was full of air and we struggled to get the pump to pump to capacity,” said Phillips. Then the pump kept tripping. “We literally had someone sitting there throughout the night – it only runs for 10 minutes, then it trips, and so on,” he said.
Phillips said it took another two to three days after the pump kept tripping to get water flowing back to the community. “But also what we’ve discovered, in our pumps were very strange objects that you’d never find in a pump, which prevented that pump from pumping at full capacity – there were bottles in there, 2l Coke bottles, there were containers in there, milk cartons, and we removed that out of the pump.”
The municipality has begun an investigation to establish the real reasons it could not pump water, he said.
“Anyways, after we removed the stuff out of the pump, the capacity of the pump increased and we could eventually get water. I think it was the eighth or the ninth day that we could get water to the communities – and ever since there was not a problem,” he said.
The municipality had communicated with residents using loud-hailers and social media, and provided water tankers for them as well as the Saldanha Bay and Berg River municipalities. Private companies helped too, while JoJo tanks owned by the municipality were set up at collection points for residents.
Gift of the Givers and Heal the Land had also supplied water to the affected communities. Phillips told Daily Maverick that close to 10,000 five-litre cans were distributed.
When Daily Maverick asked Phillips about the water shortage and its possible effect on tourism, he said “we are very concerned about that”.
The municipality had explained to the businesses and affected residents that there was “definitely no intent from the municipality to have this situation, neither have we sat back and done nothing to resolve the issue. We worked literally around the clock to try to establish the problem to get the water to the areas.” When the water supply was re-established there were several pipe bursts in Vanrhynsdorp, “which is completely beyond our control”.
“We’ve fixed it in the short space of time but we are absolutely concerned. We know and we heard and saw people were actually packing up and leaving and trying to find accommodation in other towns in Matzikama, but not in Vanrhynsdorp because other towns aside from Vredendal and Vanrhynsdorp had water,” he added.
Matzikama’s infrastructure problems
“Yes, the roads are a problem, the infrastructure is a problem, yes there are other service delivery issues, but you can do nothing without any water,” said Beets.
When Daily Maverick asked Phillips about the municipality’s infrastructure problem, he gave a complex explanation about fixing the problem.
The municipality received R49-million from the national Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) in phases over three years to fix some of the problems. In the first phase the municipality would increase the pipeline that supplies water to the raw-water dam as well as upgrade the pump station. This was expected to be completed at the end of October, at a cost of R17-million.
“That means we will be able to pump a lot more water in the same space of time than what we could previously do,” said Phillips.
“But for now, this is the last two weeks that the canal is off – it ends this Friday. Thereafter it will be open until the end of April where we start the repairs of the canal,” he said.
In the second phase of the project – aimed to be completed by the end of the financial year in June – the municipality planned to build a new pump station next to an existing one in a bid to increase the capacity of the pumps.
The third phase was to ask the DWS to increase its dam capacity levels since the raw-water dams were built in 1988, when the population was about 12,000 people in Vanrhynsdorp and Vredendal. “Now the population is about 33,000, so it’s a lot more [people] than what the dams were initially built for.
Read more in Daily Maverick: R400m later, Makhanda is still facing a catastrophic water crisis
“So, our request to the department is that the third phase must be for us to increase capacity for the dams from 90 to 130 million megalitres to at least 130 to 150 million megalitres of water that we are able to hold,” said Phillips, adding that they have not receive funding for this yet.
“But the real solution to our situation is that we need to replace or upgrade the canal system.”
Another problem was that the municipality did not have a director of technical services. The post, Phillips explained, had not been filled despite being advertised four times over the past two years. Somebody is acting in the position, which is paid for by the Western Cape government. This contract ends in November.
Because of the municipality’s grading, Phillips said, it could not offer a competitive, market-related salary. It had, with permission from the provincial government, written to the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs for a change to a higher municipal status so higher salaries can be paid to directors.
Phillips told Daily Maverick that throughout the ordeal the municipality learnt a few lessons.
“First of all, we’ve learnt that it is not possible to run a department without the head of that department being in place… despite the fact that you have managers, managers rely on guidance from their directors in terms of how to do things.”
The second lesson – a big one – had been that there needed to be continuous maintenance – a qualified and experienced person should be employed full-time to maintain the pumps.
Another important lesson was to communicate better with the affected communities. “I’m of the view that we can improve our communication. [Although they did communicate] we can [make more use] of electronic communication in a better way to ensure that our communities are regularly informed about the status of our infrastructure and for anything else in the municipality for that matter that the community needs to be informed about.” DM