In the midst of the global Covid-19 pandemic, communities in one of the major coronavirus hotspots of KwaZulu-Natal had no water for nearly eight days in January. The eThekwini Municipality says the interruption of water services to the southern and western regions, which include Durban south, were due to technical difficulties at the Northdene 3 pump station between 6 and 15 January 2021. Investigations by city officials found that all three available pumps had failed and needed urgent replacement. As a result, downstream reservoirs could not receive any pumped water.
The reservoirs in Chatsworth 4, Harinagar, Klaarwater, Shallcross, St Wendolins, Birch Road, Washington Heights and Intake Road were affected so that large portions of Chatsworth, Shallcross and Savanna Park, among other areas, went without water for several days.
Shallcross appears to have been the first to suffer a supply issue, as early as 6 January 2021, while other areas further into Chatsworth were cut off over the next three days.
A communiqué was only sent out by eThekwini Municipality on 8 January 2021, explaining that there were issues at the pumps and that processes were in place to procure equipment. However, it said repairs to the pump station could take up to four weeks.
Residents rightfully directed their anger against ward councillors and other officials, demanding that they account for their actions after having apparently learnt about the issues at the Northdene 3 pumps months earlier. Their anger was further fuelled by the discovery of a tender that was sent out on 7 September 2020. The scope of work involved the removal and installation of two medium voltage motors at Northdene 3 pump station as well as electrical repairs. Residents wanted to know why officials who had known about the issue had not acted swiftly, and why they had not followed up on maintenance procedures. A communiqué sent by eThekwini Municipality on 1 January 2021 blamed heavy rainfall on New Year’s Eve for causing damage to equipment at the pump station, but as the crisis unfolded residents grew sceptical of the claim.
City promises that a pump would be temporarily procured from Umgeni Water to get the taps flowing came to nothing, when it was revealed that the borrowed pump could not be used at Northdene 3. News reports quoted councillor Nicole Graham as saying it appeared that the pump was damp as it had not been used recently. Following this chaos, the municipality turned to the Mondi Group to procure a replacement pump.
Work resumed and some areas began receiving water by 21 January. Other areas still have no water.
The chaotic scenario has meant that residents were forced to go without water for several days, with little or no warning. In some areas, no water tankers visited for days, although politicians said that the municipality had made 94 tankers available. Cash-strapped residents, already facing the economic difficulties of the pandemic, had to dig into their pockets to buy water. Those without the extra cash or transportation needed to get water, resorted to collecting water from the city’s drainpipes.
Residents took to Facebook to complain that when the municipal tankers eventually arrived on some streets, there were no Covid-19 safety protocols in place. In some instances, the tankers stayed in the area for just a few minutes before running out of water. Residents said they had no way of knowing when the tankers would appear – in one instance, a tanker arrived at 11.30pm.
The haphazard delivery of water, with large crowds gathering for collections, was criticised as setting the scene for a Covid-19 superspreader event.
Residents vented their fury at councillors on Facebook, reporting that they had seen multiple water tankers pass their homes heading to the local informal settlements, while ratepayers were abandoned in their time of need. One video circulated, showing four water tankers being sent to the Link Road informal settlement while surrounding communities went without. Moreover, residents of some informal settlements in Shallcross reportedly blocked off roads to prevent tankers accessing the other areas. Residents accused ward councillors of being “social media activists” rather than being willing to help communities when they needed it.
Reflecting true ubuntu community spirit, the residents of the affected areas, in collaboration with the greater Durban community, rallied together to get water to those in dire need. People opened up their homes and taps to others to collect water. Some dropped off water at the doorsteps of the sick and elderly. Local businesses and organisations showed their support by bringing in private tankers, making JoJo tanks available, driving past homes delivering water, and allowing residents to fill water containers at their facilities at zero cost. Communities such as Merebank, Wentworth, Westville and as far out as Richards Bay, among several others, sent assistance.
Although the water supply has been restored, residents are angry about how the crisis was handled. They have established a water crisis committee and are exploring launching a civil suit against the municipality for human rights violations. A petition is also being circulated, demanding that the municipality be held accountable. A week after the restoration of services, on 19 January 2021, Shallcross residents were once again without water for hours due to a water burst pipe.
Had it not been for the generosity of fellow Durbanites and companies, many residents would not have been able to access clean water.
As always, it is once again ordinary people who have to bear the brunt of poor service delivery and watch as officials fail them. MC