After Cape Town, another place in South Africa is fighting off a ‘Day Zero’ water crisis

Dam levels at 16%; fixing leaks and reducing consumption among measures taken

By Munyaradzi Makoni
Published: Wednesday 31 August 2022
A water leak in Kwazakhele, a township in Nelson Mandela Bay. Photo: Genevieve Quintal, Amnesty International South Africa
A water leak in Kwazakhele, a township in Nelson Mandela Bay. Photo: Genevieve Quintal, Amnesty International South Africa A water leak in Kwazakhele, a township in Nelson Mandela Bay. Photo: Genevieve Quintal, Amnesty International South Africa

South Africa’s southern Nelson Mandela Bay municipality, located in Eastern Cape province, is staring at the possibility of Day Zero when its taps would run dry just four years after Cape Town escaped a similar bullet.

The metropolitan municipality was hit by severe drought in 2016 and the dams have not been replenished since then. The area typically gets rain throughout the year, but levels remained below 20 per cent last year.

The dams supplying water to the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality are at a combined 16.34 per cent level as of August 29, 2022. Around 11 per cent of the water is of poor quality and has dropped too low for extraction.

Dams at Impofu and Kouga have gone dry. Churchill, Loerie and Groendal have water left for 698 days.

Read more: Basic water services in South Africa are in decay after years of progress

An exceptional three-year rainfall deficit exacerbated the water crisis in Cape Town in 2017. The South African city was staring at the possibility of major dams supplying water falling below 13.5 per cent. Nearly four million residents were forced to halve their water consumption with a cocktail of measures.

Nelson Mandela Bay includes the coastal city of Gqeberha, previously known as Port Elizabeth and Kariega, Despatch, the Colchester, Blue Horizon Bay and Seaview areas. It municipality covers an area of 1,959 square kilometres and is home to about 1.3 million people. 

The area is a major seaport, automotive manufacturing centre and economic powerhouse of the Eastern Cape province.

The municipality recorded the second lowest rainfall in January 2022 in records dating back 122 years, according to the South African Weather Services. The communities also lost roughly 81 mega-litres of clean water every day through leaking pipes.

“Local dams are at 16 per cent, so we are staring at trouble ahead,” Luvuyo Bangazi, the municipality’s spokesperson, told Down to Earth. “The goal is to reduce consumption to below 230 million litres per day (MLD) so that we can have sustainable supply,” he says.

The current monthly average for the municipality is 260 MLD.

The municipality raised alarms of a possible Day Zero as early as January 2022. In February, taps ran dry in parts of KwaNobuhle township in Kariega. Since then, residents relied on water tankers as their primary source of potable water. In June, the warning bells were sounded for 107 areas that taps would have no water when the dams ran dry.

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The Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber also joined forces with the municipality, humanitarian organisation Gift of the Givers and the national water and sanitation department. They are trying to save the community by repairing damaged infrastructure and providing potable water.

Residents are restricted to 50 litres per person per day. They have been recommended to place bricks or filled soft drink bottles in the cisterns of every toilet to reduce flush volume and only non-municipal or grey water should be used for flushing toilets.

The municipality had fast-tracked the region’s Day Zero, said Amnesty International South Africa Executive Director Shenilla Mohamed. Amnesty International is a non-governmental organisation focused on human rights.

“When Amnesty International South Africa visited the metro in June 2022, it was clear that the municipality failed to ensure that water was not lost to leaks. Despite the area facing a water crisis, Nelson Mandela Bay was losing about 29 per cent of its water supply,” she said.  

Since then, the municipality has been making a concerted effort to fix the water leaks, Mohamed added.

The municipality’s water saver website has claimed it has fixed 9,719 leaks, while 488 are still outstanding.

Bangazi says there are several domestic size boreholes drilled by non-profits and the municipality is completing the construction of seven industrial scape boreholes to provide 20 million litres per day. These will come on stream towards the end of September.

“The situation should never have gotten to this point. The water crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay is not new, the metro has been facing drought since 2016, so there is no excuse for the lack of maintenance to fix the water leaks,” says Mohamed

The relationship between the city and water users has improved, with consumption dropping slightly, “But more can be done,” says Bangazi. For instance, the metro is building sustainable water use in the community, raising awareness among students about the ongoing drought affecting the metro and conserving water.

Read more: In Africa, burden of water labour still lies on women

Mohamed called on the government to guarantee that sufficient resources are allocated and protected in any situation to ensure that all human rights are upheld. This includes the right to water.

“The right to access safe, sufficient and reliable water will continue to be threatened unless the government prioritises investment in infrastructure, implements climate-friendly policies and tackles corruption and the mismanagement of public funds,” she said.

South Africa’s Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu, in a media briefing August 26, said interventions in Nelson Mandela Bay to prevent taps from running dry were starting to yield positive results.

There has been progress in handling the water crisis since the interventions began in April 2022, he said. The municipality is improving compliance in a number of areas. “We have been able, up to now, to avert Day Zero,” Mchunu said.

“Mitigation efforts included an aggressive water leak-fixing campaign, water demand management and communication,” says Bangazi. Nonetheless, short-term gains do not negate the need for long-term planning.

“Whether the drought continues or not, the fact is that we need stability on the water in Nelson Mandela Bay and we can’t fail there,” said Mchunu.

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