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Crisis mode: It’s time to sound the alarm on the Eastern Cape water shortage


Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

The water situation in the Eastern Cape is a clear and present emergency. The province’s seven million people are living in fear and anxiety due to a major shortage of water, a situation that has been going on for many years, but which has now degenerated into a crisis.

If one were to go by general media coverage, we might be tempted to think that the second-biggest crisis in South Africa right now — after the Covid-19 crisis, of course — is Cyril vs Ace, and yet it is not.

It is the impending Day Zero situation in the Eastern Cape. A multiyear drought has left the province reeling. Day Zero is slated for 1 June 2021 in many parts of the province. Day Zero is the day when a particular area officially runs out of water. We saw this in Cape Town in 2018, when a multi-year drought emptied dams and the taps almost ran dry. Provincial and city authorities outlined plans for the start of Level 7 water restrictions when water services would be officially cut off and it would be every person for themselves.

Cape Town’s Day Zero campaign was the biggest environmental story of the 2010s. It was the main conversation topic around office water fountains and dinner tables: “Will the city of Cape Town go on a downward spiral? Will it be a biblical Armageddon down there?” Everybody wanted to know. It was edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Top media houses around the world (CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, Der Spiegel, and so on) dispatched news teams to the city. The Democratic Alliance also did a good job of focusing everyone’s attention on the impending doom. It was national leader Mmusi Maimane’s number one priority until Cape Town emerged from the crisis.

Cape Town’s Day Zero campaign should have taught everyone the importance of preparation and long-term investment in water infrastructure. Unfortunately, it did not, and here we are. Perhaps it is the fact that Cape Town did not explode into flames and slowly collapse that people pay scant attention to the Eastern Cape’s Day Zero campaign. Or perhaps it is the dreary 15-month campaign against the Covid-19 virus that is occupying people’s minds right now — you know, self-preservation.  

Make no mistake about it. The water situation in the Eastern Cape is a clear and present emergency. The province’s seven million people are living in fear and anxiety due to a major shortage of water, a situation that has been going on for many years, but which has now degenerated into a crisis. Dam levels are at 12%. The Kouga dam has been at 4.5% for some time now. There is really no water left there. Remember that a 4.5% dam level does not translate into 4.5% availability for the city. Only 1.5% of the water is usable. Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Nqaba Bhanga has been desperately trying to cut down daily water consumption from 300 megalitres a day to about half that amount. He has also been doing a lot of buck-passing, blaming former office bearers for sitting on their hands while water infrastructure collapsed.

There are fires everywhere in the province. Sarah Baartman district is also on the brink. Water supply in Makhanda has been erratic for years, as reported by Grocott’s Mail and other media. The German paper Der Spiegel recently did a feature article on the city. In many parts of the province, people have been waking up in the middle of the night to fetch water. Businesses are fleeing every day. Schools have been closed and children sent home because it is impossible to guarantee enough water supply for learners’ needs within a pandemic. The vehicle-manufacturing industry and farmers, who generate most of the province’s liquidity, are facing very uncertain moments.

The water crisis in the Eastern Cape is an inflection point that must cause all of us to do profound soul searching in order to emerge from this stronger. To be perfectly honest, we should have hit this inflection point more than a decade ago when Makhanda residents started complaining about collapsing water infrastructure in their area. Seven million people live in the Eastern Cape and their health and wellbeing must be a top priority for everyone.

The crisis must be dealt with carefully, methodically.   

First, the minister of water affairs needs to play a bigger role in managing the water situation in the Eastern Cape. A new blueprint needs to be developed to ensure that the Eastern Cape gets more water, long term. Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane has indeed set up a war room to deal with the crisis. Water Affairs Minister Lindiwe Sisulu visited the province and donated more water tanks two weeks ago. She is lobbying Finance Minister Tito Mboweni to channel more money to the crisis. Beyond that, she has to be more present, more active, more in charge of this crisis.  

Second, clear investment plans must be developed to show how the water infrastructure will be overhauled in the short, medium and long term. Preliminary meetings in the province show that R500-million is needed to fix leaks and other water problems now and, in the medium term, R120-billion will have to be invested in the Eastern Cape alone.

To ensure that this money does not disappear into private pockets, à la PPE tenders, President Cyril Ramaphosa should also have a supervisory role, and if necessary, help with messaging as well. Remember that projections already show that South Africa needs to invest more than R1-trillion in its water infrastructure over a 10-year period. The lessons learnt in the Eastern Cape will come in handy elsewhere.

Third, water utilities should help municipalities in the Eastern Cape where they can. Rand Water has been assisting in Gqeberha and this has to be commended. With greater solidarity, municipalities can share resources and help young experts gain more knowledge in dealing with water infrastructure.

Fourth, South Africa has to develop a national water management plan with clear alert levels to be displayed on TV several times a day. This system should be rolled out nationwide because experience has shown that water problems are not confined to the Cape provinces; it is a nationwide challenge. If we do a comparison of municipalities across the country, we quickly notice that advisories have been issued in every single province over the past month.

Fifth, we must make the link between the climate crisis and drought. South Africa is a water-stressed country and we have to start recognising the role that burning coal and gas has on planetary heating and drought. This should then cause us to adopt more renewable power sources. As former Statistician-General Pali Lehohla said recently, the climate crisis is a slow mover until it’s not — then we have crises like Covid-19.

We all need to start talking about the Eastern Cape’s Day Zero nonstop, not just to shine the light on the plight of the seven million people who face this risk, but also to put pressure on political leaders to do more. We need to talk about this crisis constantly until a long-term solution is found. DM


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All Comments 4

  • Is this the reason the Cubans are coming. Western Cape at the time of their crisis was always full of well communicated plans, desalination plants and a few Province – Government arguments on dams. Not heard too much of Plan A, B & C from Eastern Cape. Best thing to do was the set up of a War Room, just like Cyril leading Eskom’s load shedding room, and everything will be OK. Trust me.

  • Sur. Mr.Bhanga has every reason to point fingers. At Mokonyane primarily and Lungisa and Bobani thereafter. Theft and looting in Dept of Water reached 6.8BILLION with that terrible woman in charge. Neglect was Lungisa’s contribution.

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