Johannesburg - The desperate search for clean, free water in the cluster of villages that make up Somkhele has long been a women's burden: walking for as much as six hours, risking sexual harassment and rape.
And now, with the threat of Covid-19, the struggle has become more harrowing for the women of Somkhele, a rural area in the northern reaches of KwaZulu-Natal, near the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve.
“There's no water to wash our hands with,” says local activist Medical Nziba, who says the nearest resource is 2km from her home.
"We try to get some to wash our hands. but it's not easy. We don't even have the sanitisers and use Jeyes Fluid and methylated spirits."
"We have heard again and again from radio and TV to wash our hands frequently with water and soap, and that that is the effective way to eliminate viral particles on our hands."
It's painful, she says. “The government is failing to assist us to overcome this obstacle for many years, and even now, during this challenging time of fighting the coronavirus. We are worried if the spread of the virus penetrated our villages, how do we get water to use in need and stay safe?”
WoMin, an African gender and extractives alliance, tells how the women of Somkhele are in a desperate, dire state without basic water supply during the pandemic.
Together with a raft of civil society organisations, including the Life after Coal campaign and Friends of the Earth, they are calling on the government “to make good on its promises and ensure the swift delivery of water to these communities amid a growing health pandemic”.
For the past decade, Somkhele, where over half the 180 000 households are headed by women, has faced “severe and often catastrophic” water scarcity, created by the combined effects of coal mining activities and droughts in the past decade.
“Now, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, these communities are facing a major crisis. Last week, there was no water, not even the local clinic has access to water. Most households cannot afford to request water tankers, and some do not own JoJo tanks, a common method of storing water,” says WoMin.
Since the spread of Covid-19, Somkhele's women are concerned that they will not be able to protect themselves and their families from the pandemic because they have no access to water.
"The lack of water will undoubtedly increase the exposure to illness and potentially lead to the spread of the coronavirus," says WoMin.
“I don't know what's wrong with getting water to Somkhele,” remarks Caroline Ntaopane, of WoMin.
“We thought the government would prioritise this area because of the coronavirus, but still this community doesn't have water. The people
in the villages are just hoping the virus doesn't get to them as they can't do all the requirements that we have to follow: staying at home, social distancing and washing your hands all the time because of the situation they
find themselves in. It's a real disaster.”
Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu announced a 400 000-water tanker intervention with about 4 274 water tanks procured for KwaZulu-Natal. Yet, none have reached Somkhele.
“The only water tanks available to communities are the ones placed by the municipality in central locations, but as of now, they are empty.”
In 2012, Tendele Coal Mine commenced operations in the area, disrupting communal water sources.
“The Mfolozi River and dam were fenced off so that the community could not have access to these water sources. The little water remaining has dried up due to a series of droughts.”
In their 2017 report, No Longer a Life Worth Living, the women of Somkhele documented how it and neighbouring Fuleni face the twin crisis of water grabs by a coal mining operation and drought linked to climate change.
“They are the ones that carry the brunt of the crisis. They, too, are the ones that carry the hope for a different, most justice future,” reads the report.
It details how the water crisis has contributed to increased hunger, poor health, greater poverty and the intensification of women's unpaid work as they walk greater distances in search of safe free drinking water and labour to take care of sick family members.
Women in Somkhele have raised their concerns about the lack of water access with authorities, but these have fallen on deaf ears. Last April, women in the Machibini area of Somkhele demonstrated for their right to water and 29 activists were arrested and detained in jail for up to nine days.
Immediately after their release, local councillors pledged a R17million budget allocation for water infrastructure in the area and an additional R32m was added.
“To date, nothing has been done,” says attorney Kirsten Youens, whose law firm acts on behalf of the 4000-strong Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation.
Last week, a letter from Youens to Sisulu and her department called for the urgent provision of water to the communities of Somkhele. Youens has not received a reply.
“As you may be aware, these communities are living on the border of the Somkhele open cast coal mine, which causes pollution of the rivers and streams as well as of the run-off rainwater that the communities collect from their roofs into JoJo tanks. This makes it impossible for people to utilise ways in which they used for water security," she wrote.
“While Ward 18 has taps and the necessary infrastructure, these taps are dry and have been since May 2010. Ward 15 has taps and infrastructure installed, but the community has had no access to water since 2017. The communal water taps are also dry.
“We all know that handwashing with soap and water has been consistently highlighted as a key preventative measure against the pandemic and those without access to clean, reliable water are immediately at risk.
“Our client and the communities living in these areas are in need of urgent government intervention for the protection and fulfilment of their basic Constitutional rights, not only to address the current Covid-19 crisis but also to provide sustainable access to water,” she wrote. Sputnik Ratau, of the department, did not respond this week.
Last week, it rained in Somkhele. “Even the rain is not good for us because our roofs are polluted with coal dust. But we have no choice, we have to use that water,” says Nziba.