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Water crisis-Day Zero: First it was Cape Town, now it is Nelson Mandela Bay, which Metro is next?

The Theewaterskloof Dam, a key source of water supply to Cape Town. Image, Halden Krog, AP.

The Theewaterskloof Dam, a key source of water supply to Cape Town. Image, Halden Krog, AP.

Published Jun 20, 2022

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By Corrie Kruger

Water is a basic human right, but it also costs money to build, run, and maintain the system that brings that water into people’s homes.

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Cities in South Africa have a business model of charging the rich more for their higher water and electricity use and using this revenue to subsidise poorer households’ basic needs.

The question is if this is a sustainable model?

Looking at the jobless numbers, that brings wishful thinking to a halt.

Cape Town:

At the height of summer in 2018, Cape Town was reeling from an environmental shock, the scale of which no one here had seen in over a century.

A three-year drought, which even seasoned climatologists hadn’t seen coming, broke records going back more than a hundred years.

The drought was counted as a one-in-300-year climate event, and newspaper headlines around the world warned that Cape Town might become one of the first cities globally to have its municipal dams run empty.

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Thousands of people still need to collect water from standpipes outside of their homes every day and share often run-down communal toilets and porta-loos.

Cape Town is a city of just over four million people, and a breakdown of who uses the most water shows starkly the inequality that still bedevils the service delivery here: those living in formal housing use two-thirds (66 percent) of the city’s water allocation, while those living in informal settlements only draw four percent of this shared resource.

With 14 percent of people living in informal homes, about a third of the city’s residents, 1.5 million people, can’t afford to pay for water, and many of them lean heavily on the state’s subsidised water services.

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By bringing into clear focus the divide between the city’s ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, it reminded everyone that many Capetonians and many other people across South Africa live in a perpetual state of Day Zero.

The African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) and the Climate System Analysis Group (CSAG) from the University of Cape Town, and the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University have calculated that human-caused climate change made this drought approximately three times more likely to occur.

The CSAG web site states: “CSAG has excellent national and international collaborative experience with formal links to leading international research institutions and programmes. CSAG is the START Africa regional node of excellence in climate modelling and has representation on key international activities (e.g. 3 IPCC authors in WG1 and WG2, co-chair of the IPCC TGICA, WCRP Task Force on Regional Climate Downscaling)” Reading through the CVs of the team one will need to go far to find more well qualified people in any organisation with members holding various degrees ranging from as a honours, Master's, PhD, or Post-doctoral level.

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Nelson Mandela Bay

Business Chamber chief executive Denise van Huyssteen said the Chamber’s key water crisis interventions – Adopt A School, Adopt A Leak and various humanitarian initiatives – provided a platform for business to help mitigate the risks associated with the water crisis and would be implemented in partnership with Gift of the Givers.

“Taps running dry risks an unprecedented health and humanitarian crisis in the metro, particularly in the most disadvantaged areas. She is also on record to say: “The response of businesses willing to volunteer their services, time, and resources to avert a crisis by repairing leaks, installing water tanks and boreholes, treating water and other assistance, has been really encouraging. Adopt A Leak will enable business to implement voluntary assistance in a coordinated and integrated way to rein in the extent of the water leaks.”

“Daily consumption currently stands at 281MLD a day, which is 51 MLD above the targeted consumption levels. Van Huysteen says it is vital that consumers immediately reduce their consumption levels. In tandem with this, the leak situation is still dire, and this is where we will be focusing, along with boreholes, pump water treatment plants, rainwater harvesting, and repairing or upgrading pumps at dams.

North-West University Professor Roelof Burger explained that there was a good understanding of the meteorological drivers of rainfall variability over the Eastern Cape, with evidence that the variability of rainfall was increasing over time, meaning that water would become harder to manage in the future.

Investigating what has transpired to get NMB to Day Zero, a Social Housing Development practitioner, Mr Ron Pask, referred us to emeritus Professor Echart Schumann, which in turn, led us to discover a 205-page report that was compiled in 2007 investigating the feasibility of a water desalination project for the area.

Just as in Cape Town, the number of extremely learned and knowledge-rich individuals involved to produce this report is astounding. Needless to say, this project was never implemented.

The many papers produced by professor Eckhart can be viewed at (www.researchgate.net/profile/Eckart-Schumann).

There also appears to have been a proposal for a wave action turbine to salinator to potable water in response to the wave action mapping done in 2018 by the NMU and Professor Schuman.

One can only wonder what decision will be taken today if the same feasibility study was on the table. Cadre deployment has cost this country a mammoth price.

Who is to Blame?

Our Constitution obliges both national and provincial government to support municipalities in their service delivery functions.

The national Department of Water handles bulk water supply across the country. But the department has been failing in many of its functions in recent years.

It has not kept up with infrastructure maintenance or new supply; there’s been a high turnover of directors-general, which has created instability in the department, according to the legal advocacy group, the Centre for Environmental Rights; and more than half of the wastewater treatment works across the country are failing.

In a follow up article, we will delve into all the matters contained in this report. It is most definitely time for Parliament to hold the previous Minister responsible for this total mismanagement and utter disregard for the people of the country and their disrespect for money accountable.

The acting director-general of the water ministry said in an affidavit that a high turnover of directors-general since 2016 meant “the obvious illegality related to the conclusion of the SAP contracts” was not addressed sooner. The people should take to warning “you are playing with fire” serious.

Playing with water is equally serious.

It is not good enough to transfer delinquent Ministers to the portfolios where they can do less harm.

The country is fed up with this “solution” there needs to be real consequences that match the severity of the actions.

Corrie Kruger is an Independent Analyst.

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