‘We want water in our taps’ — Durban residents vent their ire at top eThekwini officials
Behind the clouds of fog and recent obfuscation from officialdom, small chinks of light emerged at the weekend to illuminate some of the real reasons behind Durban’s water crisis.
For several months, water pressure and supply have been erratic in several parts of Durban. Residents in Phoenix say they have been without reliable water supplies for more than 100 days, while low water pressure or complete cut-offs have become commonplace for many residents in the northern areas of Durban.
Over this period, city officials have largely blamed the problem on the severe floods that hit Durban last April, along with additional flood damage from another severe downpour on 13 January. Other official explanations have included the alleged “sabotage” or vandalism of vital water infrastructure as well as claims that the burgeoning population of the city has resulted in a situation where the demand for treated water is exceeding the available supply.
Yet, information presented at a heated public meeting at the Shastri Park Community Hall in Phoenix on Saturday suggests that the root cause of many of the problems can be traced back to more than 60 faulty air valves and a November 2018 decision to shut down Durban’s biggest water storage reservoir for urgent refurbishment.
According to Jabulani Mayise, the acting deputy head of operations at the eThekwini Water and Sanitation Department, the refurbishment of the massive Reservoir 3 at the Durban Heights storage facility in Dunkeld Road had compelled the city to use a much smaller reservoir as a stopgap measure for the last three years.
This involved feeding water through two interconnected pipeline systems that stretch 32km from Durban Heights to Phoenix. The upshot was that when the refurbished reservoir was recommissioned late last year, many of the 72 air valves along this lengthy pipeline were somehow “damaged”, apparently linked to the large volumes of air entering the water pipelines during the recommissioning.
Mayise explained that there are several large air chambers along the route, along with valves to remove excess air, but there are still several airlocks or blockages in the system.
He said the city had ordered 60 new air valves, which arrived on Friday, 26 January, and artisans had begun replacing the faulty valves and rectifying air locks along the pipeline system — a lengthy process that would only be completed on 15 February.
However, eThekwini officials have yet to provide a clear explanation as to why it took so long to receive the 60 new valves, bearing in mind that airlocks and air valve problems emerged at least four months ago when thousands of residents in Durban North, Umhlanga and other northern suburbs were stranded with no tap water for five days in mid-September.
‘Elements of sabotage’
It is also noteworthy that the eThekwini Municipality issued a statement in late September confirming that the police and the State Security Agency had been called in to investigate, because “elements of sabotage are suspected after technical teams discovered an air valve in a water pipeline that was tampered with and another valve was vandalised.
“This comes as our technical teams continue with an assessment on the Northern Aqueduct to ascertain the root cause of the reduced flow resulting in the interruption of water supply in Umhlanga, Durban North and surrounding areas.”
Angry residents of Phoenix, Verulam and Brooks Farm say their water supply has been erratic or non-existent for nearly 100 days. This led to protests and street barricades in Phoenix last week — which may continue this week — despite a flurry of media briefings, public meetings and the arrival of senior officials from the head office of the national Department of Water and Sanitation.
In an attempt to defuse the growing anger, eThekwini Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda and other senior officials held a “public engagement” meeting at the Shastri Park community hall on January 27.
Kaunda declared, “We are with you in your plight. We will give you an opportunity to ventilate your pain. We are here to listen to you. We are here to be whipped.”
And whip him they did.
Resident Selwyn Govender said he found the mayor’s remarks belittling and an indication he believed it was sufficient to call a public meeting for an hour or two where residents would be allowed to “vent” during another photo opportunity for the mayor.
Govender complained that the technical explanations offered by Mayise were unlikely to be understood by residents, who simply wanted to see the immediate restoration of water supplies so that they could shower, cook or bathe elderly bedridden folk with soiled diapers.
“The community is in crisis … [yet] you see us as crying babies and want to put a dummy in our mouths. I can see you saying ‘No’, but that is how we feel. We are tired of being pacified.
“As we sit here, we don’t have water in Phoenix (even for extinguishers) so if you were to catch fire, you would just burn.”
The blunt message to the city from fellow resident H Naicker was: “If people are not doing their jobs, kick them out.”
That message was echoed by Shani Singh, who added, “All we are hearing is the same story over and over again. We are fed up. We want answers.”
Bongiwe Dlamini said: “You must not wait for people to strike [before you come]. Make sure your employees are doing their work efficiently.”
Another resident, who introduced himself simply as Shaun, remarked that the community of Phoenix could relax for the day, free from being hijacked or murdered because of the “huge police presence” escorting the mayor.
A 75-year-old pensioner, who did not give his name, lamented that poor communities were struggling to pay their monthly water and lights bills.
“Get your arse in order. We are now demanding services for what we pay for. Please, sir.”
To loud applause, Mervyn Govender of the Phoenix Tenants and Residents’ Association, declared: “We don’t want water tanker trucks. We want water in our taps.”
Earlier, at a media briefing on Friday, Sean Phillips, the most senior official in the national Department of Water and Sanitation, released a lengthy statement on the latest efforts to resolve eThekwini’s water crisis as well as information to “explain the multiple underlying causes of these interruptions”.
The joint statement by the national department, eThekwini municipality and the Umngeni-uThukela Water Board states the “first root cause of the problem is that the demand for treated water in eThekwini is exceeding the available supply of treated water. Demand for water in eThekwini has grown rapidly, largely due to population growth, and partly due to increasing leaks in the municipality’s water distribution systems.”
It also acknowledges that non-revenue water (water that is not paid for due to leaks, theft or non-payment) has reached a level of 58% in Durban, compared to 37% in 2013. A pipeline replacement project to “drastically reduce” these leaks and water revenue losses would start next month.
The city will also take delivery of another 100 water tanker trucks before the end of May, a discouraging sign that the supply crisis is far from over.
But a more permanent solution is unlikely to emerge for another six years, around 2030, when a massive R28-billion dam on the uMkhomazi River is scheduled to be commissioned.
“In the meantime, in addition to the uMkhomazi Water Project, the shortage of treated water in eThekwini must be addressed by the municipality by reducing non-revenue water in its water distribution system and by water users in the municipality using water more sparingly to reduce the average consumption of water per capita per day.”
On the subject of recent water supply failures in Verulam, oThongathi and Phoenix, the statement suggests that the old Northern Aqueduct is not “performing optimally”.
“The new northern aqueduct is currently being commissioned, and this will provide a permanent solution to the poor performance of the old Northern Aqueduct. In the meantime, the municipality has been implementing various interventions to improve the performance of the old aqueduct, including reducing leaks and replacing defective air valves.”
- A full recording of the 140-minute public meeting at Shastri Park community hall can be viewed here. DM