DAYS OF DROUGHT
Nelson Mandela Bay walks tightrope of a wing and a prayer – and then finally … rain
There was a long-standing joke in Nelson Mandela Bay that you’d never hear local weatherman Garth Sampson say, ‘Good rains fell in the catchment area.’ Then, after more than seven years of drought, at around noon on Thursday, when combined dam levels reached 65%, Sampson finally said: ‘The drought has been broken.’
For the past few years, local weatherman Garth Sampson had only dismal predictions for rain in Nelson Mandela Bay.
DA councillor Retief Odendaal, whose term as mayor saw some of the most critical days of drought, recounted: “Garth would come in for our drought meetings and every time he had a picture on his presentation of an angel of death.”
“He said he was the prophet of doom,” Odendaal laughed.
While Odendaal was mayor for less than a year, he led the city when there were fears it would run out of water altogether, and, along with Sampson, he became one of the most trusted sources on Nelson Mandela Bay’s response to the drought.
This week, the SA Weather Service’s Sampson had better news.
“We are out of the meteorological drought, yes! But the hydrological drought will be for the Department of Water and Sanitation to decide.
“They will consider it when the combined dam levels reach 65%. We should hit that by the weekend. If I was them, though, I would wait until it is considerably higher than 65%.
“I would not lift restrictions as we are moving into our traditionally dry period with a forecast of below-normal rain.
“Personally, I would never scrap restrictions, just ease them to varying degrees. We are a water-scarce nation and with exponential population growth and climate change, we must flatten that curve,” he said.
On Friday, Odendaal and his former mayoral committee member for water and infrastructure, Dries van der Westhuyzen, as well as residents, plan to trek up to the Kouga Dam early in the morning to watch the sluice gates being opened.
By 2pm on Thursday, the dam was at 90% capacity.
The local farm stall and restaurant, Padlangs, has invited everyone for a celebratory glass of sparkling wine.
There was a moment in June 2022 when the city was about to be cut off from its supply dams when Kouga was at 3% and the largest supply dam to the metro, Impofu, had been decommissioned, while authorities battled to save the Churchill Dam. Two days of heavy rain saved the city but the war with the drought continued.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Dam in Nelson Mandela Bay is at its lowest level yet
“We knew that if we reached Day Zero it would have been something terrible,” Odendaal said on Thursday.
With its large manufacturing industry, Nelson Mandela Bay is home to more than 1.2 million people and Odendaal said that at one stage they had faced almost certain water armageddon.
The city gets about 40% of its daily water from the Nooitgedacht Scheme, bringing water from the Gariep Dam, but not all reservoirs are connected to this source.
“I think a lot of credit must go to the officials from the water and sanitation department, Joseph Tsatsire and Barry Martin, who got us through this,” said Odendaal.
“There was a time when Joe wanted to move to Cape Town and I actually felt quite teary about it … I just said ‘sometimes sacrifice is called for. Don’t leave us now.’”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Daily outages likely as Nelson Mandela Bay starts water throttling during crisis
Odendaal’s first encounter with what was to become a near-disastrous drought was in 2016 when the Democratic Alliance (DA) was in charge of the city.
“We managed to reduce water consumption to 250 megalitres per day and we started putting money away for drought control measures and water augmentation projects.
“If I think back now, we paid too much for some of these projects. Coega Kop [a plant filtering iron and manganese from borehole water] was very expensive at R350-million and still only produced eight or nine megalitres per day. It was supposed to provide us with 20ml per day.”
Odendaal said he often thought back to the Eastern Cape’s 2011 response to climate change that was drawn up before COP17, at a time when former deputy minister of finance, Mcebisi Jonas, was the MEC for Finance in the province.
“Already then it was forecast that the western side of the province [where Nelson Mandela Bay is] will have more intense and longer cycles of drought. But very little was done.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Drought-hit Nelson Mandela Bay on tenterhooks as weather models predict heavy rain
Since 2016 the Karoo municipalities and towns like Graaff-Reinet were in the grip of an unrelenting drought. Kouga Local Municipality, which includes popular holiday towns like Jeffreys Bay and St Francis, were on their knees.
After the 2021 local government elections, an ANC-led coalition took over control of the metro.
“We knew they were allowing over-extraction from the dams,” Odendaal said. The ANC-led coalition admitted this was the case.
In September 2022, a DA-led coalition took over.
“I asked that the over-extraction be stopped. We were at the point where water authorities wanted to decommission the Churchill Dam. I still believe the rain that fell that day was a miracle,” he said.
“Until this day, I don’t think residents know how close we came to disaster,” he said.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Tough restrictions push back Nelson Mandela Bay’s Day Zero, but trouble still lies ahead
At the time, given the severe political instability in the metro, the trust in local politicians had hit an all-time low.
“I knew we had to overcome this,” Odendaal said. So he began writing social media posts. “I started pleading, then cautioning, and eventually threatening.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Residents in drought-hit Nelson Mandela Bay warned — save water now or mayor will come knocking
“The metro’s relationship with the Department of Water and Sanitation was so bad and they were so angry with us by then that they threatened to reduce our quotas. But I had to stand my ground and say that we were entitled to 30ml a day from the dam, and I promised that we would stick to it. We had to rebuild trust really fast.
“It was a very, very difficult time for us. Residents struggled. Suburbs often had no water. But there were no major protests. I think playing open cards about how dire our situation was worked.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Daily Outages likely as Nelson Mandela Bay starts water throttling during crisis
Odendaal recalled that the urgency of the situation meant that documents would often not be sent to his office through the normal channels. Joseph would instead deliver them himself.
Eventually, through a series of critical decisions, the city managed to avoid Day Zero.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Boil before drinking warning issued for Nelson Mandela Bay
“There are a few things I think must be done differently. I would suggest an entity like the Gamtoos Irrigation Board should be put in control of our bulk water. They have done an incredible job steering their dam through this crisis.”
“We must also continue to fix existing infrastructure. I said often that this was a man-made crisis. We would not have stumbled from crisis to crisis if it wasn’t for our bad infrastructure.
“With the Nooitgedacht Scheme [bringing water from the Gariep Dam], this metro should be water secure. It is immoral that 45% of our water remains unaccounted for. We know there will be another drought.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: It’s raining at last in Nelson Mandela Bay, but dam supply will be cut as emergency water plan kicks in
“Now is the time for us to learn our lessons. People must change their water lifestyle. You can no longer fill a swimming pool and water a garden with municipal water,” he said.
“Like the people of Cape Town [who suffered a severe drought in 2018], we must not forget.”
Odendaal added: “I want to pay tribute to Garth Sampson. He did more for awareness than anybody else during this drought. When the metro failed, he stood up and informed people in a very straightforward way. He doesn’t beat around the bush.”
Over the Heritage Day weekend, the catchment area for the supply dams to Nelson Mandela Bay received 75mm and 134mm of rain.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Heavens finally open over Nelson Mandela Bay
Reinette Colesky from the Gamtoos Irrigation Board said they were excited to see the Kouga Dam overflowing.
“It seems like Churchill started to overflow last night,” she said.
“We expect Kouga will start overflowing sometime on Friday. We are going to be there to see it,” she said.
The Kouga Dam was built in 1971 and has overflown 33 times. The last time the sluices were opened was in 2015.
By Thursday afternoon, 70,000 litres were running into the dam every second.
“Over the past five hours, 5 million cubic metres of water ran into Kouga. That is nearly twice the volume of Loerie Dam,” the Gamtoos Irrigation Board said in a Facebook post on Wednesday.
The current executive mayor, Gary van Nierkerk, said the metro’s infrastructure remained in a dire state.
“I would like to see dam levels increase to 70% before restrictions are lifted,” Van Niekerk said.
The Groendal Dam near Uitenhage is 100% full, but its main line to the Kabah water treatment works had broken and, due to flooding, engineers were struggling to repair it.
“I am still encouraging people to use 50 litres of water per person per day. We must still conserve water,” said Van Niekerk. DM