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The South African Human Rights Commission has been asked to investigate 144 complaints over two years about the irregular supply and the poor quality of water.
In one instance, residents of Louis Trichardt in Limpopo were without water for 27 days.
And residents of Riviersonderend complained that their water source was “heavily polluted”, at times delivering dirty brown water to homes.
A recent study commissioned by the Water Research Commission shows a strong link between service delivery protests and water problems around the country.
Dr Barbara Tapela of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, who conducted the research, says that while taxpayer associations have access to complaints mechanisms, residents who protest over service delivery often share the same concerns.
Tapela’s research looked at areas such as Khayelitsha in Cape Town, Sannieshof in the North West, Muyexe in Limpopo and Cala in the Eastern Cape. “There are a lot of informal settlements in small towns. These settlements were not planned for by municipalities, and the government as a whole has not been robust enough in addressing this trend,” Tapela said.
Tapela said residents in the areas she spoke to were angered by corruption and what they saw as “comrades” being given tenders for work they could not do and a lack of consultation.
The SAHRC, which last year held provincial hearings on water, believes access to water is a definite human rights issue. “Water and sanitation are fundamental to the health and well-being of all people. Inadequate water and sanitation facilities impact on the realisation of other rights such as education, health, work and dignity,” says SAHRC spokesman Isaac Mangena.
Mangena confirmed that the commission was investigating the two complaints seen by this newspaper, along with several others from residents in rural and urban areas.
In the complaint on water quality in Riviersonderend, Clive Sandenbergh, chairman of the ratepayers’ association, submitted test results which show that in 2011 water tested from the Sonderend pump station contained high levels of E.coli and coliform – both dangerous bacteria.
According to Sandenbergh sewage spills from towns upstream filter into the town’s drinking water along with animal manure from nearby farms.
However, the town’s second water source, the Olifants River, is not being used because of a damaged pipeline. The R1.6 million allocated for repairing it has allegedly been used for other projects.
Sandenbergh has also complained that the flocculent which is being used to settle silt in the Sonderend River contains aluminium.
“Unfortunately, the aluminium ends up in our drinking water. Prolonged exposure, longer than a year, has been implicated in chronic neurological disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s,” he says.
However the municipality denies that there is any problem with the water.
“We can honestly confirm that we have not received any complaints from the Human Rights Commission and we are not aware of any water problems in Riviersonderend. We will investigate and respond to the Human Rights Commission as soon as we receive such written complaints from them,” said municipal spokesman Stiffie Cronje.
He added that it was “strange” that the SAHRC confirmed the complaint before communicating with the Theewaterskloof Municipality.
Inga Gilfillan, who serves on the Soutpansberg Ratepayers’ Association, says in her complaint that the situation in Louis Trichardt is so bad that there are times when there is “no water in town for business and domestic use”.
“Hospitals can’t clean equipment, hairdressers cannot wash hair, shopping centres close their toilets. Sewage is flowing constantly in the streets.”
Speaking to The Sunday Independent, Gilfillan says residents have to buy water, drill their own boreholes, or buy water tanks. However, poorer residents cannot afford this extra cost.
She says the problem is complicated further by the fact that the water authority is the Vhembe District Municipality, while other municipal services are provided by the Makhado Municipality.
Vhembe District municipal manager Masala Makumule says he is not aware of the complaint, but acknowledges a problem with water supply to Louis Trichardt.
Makumule says most of the town’s water originates at the Albasini Dam, 20km from town, and boreholes along a water scheme built in the 1960s.
“The challenge is that the scheme is very old. It also does not have the capacity to efficiently cater for the town. Louis Trichardt has grown massively. Such a scheme was meant for a smaller town,” says Makumule.
Money is also a problem.
According to water services manager Eric Masakona, the town needs R1.3m in the short term to help drill new boreholes and repair the 50-year-old underground pipeline.
“People don’t have water, but the municipality doesn’t have money,” says Masakona.
In the long term, the municipality needs R482m for a pipeline from the Nandoni Dam near Thohoyandou. However, the municipality has only received R105m from the national government so far.
The pipeline will also service 26 villages and a prison near Louis Trichardt.
Chairman of the National Taxpayers Union, Jaap Kelder, says the problem of poor water quality and irregular delivery of water is national.
“We have been talking to the government, (the Department of) Water Affairs, et al, for many, many years with absolutely no results.
“We were hoping to be able to put more pressure on the government through the HRC,” says Kelder.
Meanwhile, Mangena says there is a “severe deficiency of inter-governmental co-operation and meaningful public consultation and participation”, which has lead to a lack of service delivery.
“The right to sanitation is intertwined with other rights such as water, health, housing, safety and security. None of these rights can be addressed in isolation of each other.
“Yet, policy makers often develop implementation strategies that are fragmented, short-term and unsustainable.
“This ignores the inter-dependence, indivisibility and universality of human rights,” he says.
The commission will be holding a national hearing on water and sanitation in March.
The Department of Water Affairs did not respond to questions sent on Tuesday. - Sunday Independent