Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) currently faces an unprecedented crisis in the delivery of basic water supply to its residents. Reports indicate the municipality’s consumption will likely deplete its local sources from the Kouga Dam by the end of May, which will consequently leave taps dry across Nelson Mandela Bay’s western areas.
We have reached Day Zero.
The municipality’s poor management, failing infrastructure, and increasing demand for consumption are the key factors for the rapid disintegration of our water system. In essence, we gave control of perhaps our most valuable resource for survival, our water, to a gang of inept bunglers known as the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality.
Now we, as residents of Nelson Mandela Bay, must face this acute situation in our water supply without a concrete understanding of how to resolve it, and we may either choose to put in serious effort as ourselves, with assemblies like the Water Crisis Committee, or we can leave it up to the usual suspects, the municipality.
There should be no excuse for the present condition facing everyday people in South Africa. In 2022, one in 10 South Africans, six million people, do not have access to infrastructure capable of providing adequate water supply. If this was not enough, the water infrastructure to which many millions more do have access is not able to provide a reliable supply of safe water.
The precise number depends on how you define reliable and safe. The discrepancy between the numbers presented by the government as an adequate supply of water, and the reality expressed by ordinary South Africans will indicate the extent to which the depth of South African democracy has not reached far beyond the surface.
The Department of Water and Sanitation’s services database indicates there are 5,336 communities in urban areas (including metros) — 64% of South Africa’s population — with 98% access to basic water supply; and 22,750 rural communities, accounting for 36% of the population, have 82% access to a basic water supply. Eight metros that represent 42% of the population have 100% access to a basic water supply.
Despite this, it was noted in 2019 that 59.9% of households in South Africa are serviced by water systems rendered unsustainable due to the impact of climate change. One-third of these households required onsite sanitation. Future projections of water supply indicate there will be a 17% deficit by 2030. The general report is satisfactory, nearly everyone is serviced with a basic supply of water, but upon further investigation it is evident that the situation is becoming untenable for many people. The future certainly does not look bright.
South Africa’s water systems, based on the statistics provided above, do not meet the demands of its citizenry and fall beneath its own development targets. South Africa adopted the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 at the Sustainable Development Summit. SDG 6 stipulates a clear set of directives targeted at safe, clean, and affordable water supply.
Seven years on from South Africa’s adoption of the SDGs, the water situation nationally is disintegrating rapidly rather than advancing toward its ambitions of a safe, robust, and ecologically restorative water system. There must be accountability for the national government and municipalities to follow through on their promises to tackle this issue. Misallocation of resources, poor strategy, and gross negligence are key reasons for South Africa’s shortfall.
It is not as if South Africa does not have the resources to cope with the water problem, but it is what it chooses to do with these resources that dooms possible solutions.
Within Nelson Mandela Bay, the municipality diverted R300-million of the R700-million meant for replacing the metro’s ageing water infrastructure in 2018 to pay legal bills, drop lawsuits, and hold summer season festivities.
Meanwhile, the problem of water in Nelson Mandela Bay threatens to provoke a jobs blood bath, with companies withdrawing their investments and prospective enterprises refusing to invest. Even on the government’s own terms of attracting investment, it is failing.
People’s experiences of the deteriorating water conditions
In Uitenhage, but not exclusively, people report that the water causes their gardens to suffer by killing the plants. Livestock also suffers from illnesses after having drunk municipal water. In some cases, boiling the water is simply not enough for safe drinking, and people in many areas report acquiring illnesses from boiled water.
Aside from hospitalisations for some children, people in Bersheba also report suffering allergic reactions, like rashes, from the water. In Mothwerwell, residents report that people forced to drink the water succumb to diarrhoea and other illnesses, especially for those in the informal settlements. Residents have reported people being sick for weeks because of poor water quality. Additionally, when water is shut off without warning, it will return in areas after two or three days, but it will be very dirty.
Low dam levels and poor water quality have led National Treasury to dedicate R100-million to NMB for boreholes to drill and locate suitable water yields. Out of these funds, the municipality has managed to deliver some boreholes. Another R140-million was requested by the municipality for fixing leaks. In the meantime, the municipality is delivering a desalination plant to the city as a solution to the impending depletion of water sources elsewhere. From the municipality, the word is that maintenance is out. Flashy tender contracts for silver-bullet solutions are in.
While we already have a crisis of hunger and mass unemployment in the metro and surroundings, the water crisis adds insult to injury. The municipality’s response has been to double down on monitoring and billing for water. As a result, the municipality has shut off water supplies for people who are unable to pay their water bills. Many of these people have been reporting for weeks that they have leaks in their houses, which have been left unattended.
In Motherwell, residents report that it does not affect the promptness of the municipality’s response if they report leaks on time. It still takes weeks for the municipality to fix broken pipes. Consequently, residents in Motherwell Township have resorted to illegal connections to the water supply in some cases as they cannot afford to pay their water bills, nor can they afford to buy water elsewhere. These residents still receive huge water bills without a running meter, which indicates the municipality relies on assessing estimates rather than reading the meters.
Outsourcing is no solution
A key element for improving the water situation in NMB involves the administration of resources to repair the municipality’s water infrastructure. The money diverted by the municipality from repairing the water system toward other expenses is certainly a contributing factor in the system’s persistent failure. However, the appropriation of resources is not the only issue for the municipality. The tender system has demonstrated the malfeasance of consultants inflating project estimates. As an example, R1.8-million was spent to drill just five boreholes. The money was specifically allocated for these purposes:
- To identify suitable geological/hydrogeological conditions;
- Conduct in-field geophysical surveys to determine best targets for drilling; and
- Appoint and manage subcontractors for drilling, yield and quality testing.
Although these budgets/provisions have been made by National Treasury to develop groundwater in the Eastern Cape, these funds are channelled through mismanaged entities, and tenders are awarded to consultants charging inflated amounts for deliverables that are hardly ever completed. The procurement and tender system exacerbate this problem, as these practices promote maladministration and corruption.
For instance, although each borehole costs R40,000, when “tenderpreneurs” apply for a tender in the municipality they will inflate the prices for each borehole to a cost of R200,000. If we really are serious about resolving the issues of service delivery and water scarcity, then we must do away with the tender system and develop the municipal capacity to deal with this directly. We must stop privatisation.
We must shift toward reskilling our workforce so municipalities can employ working people to deal with water problems, instead of outsourcing to “tenderpreneurs”. At present, the municipality is putting its eggs into the desalination basket, rather than addressing its dwindling workforce.
We as communities of the working class are saying desalination is not an option. Subjecting water to market fundamentalism is not an option either, as this will result in the same challenges we face with the issue of food security now and worsen this triad of unemployment, poverty and inequality.
Nelson Mandela Bay’s water system has been unsafe for months, starting in October 2021. Since then, Nelson Mandela Bay’s water quality has been degrading and failed two consecutive sample tests where public health officials identified bacteria in the water. Following this, a further test of 13 samples failed, and now people are forced to buy water in a city that is struggling with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
The Constitution endows South African citizens with an inalienable right to access clean and sufficient water. This right to water is fundamentally intertwined with environmental rights also outlined in the Constitution and is furthermore an enabling right for the enjoyment of rights to a just and decent life through health and education. DM