Lack of water a threat to hygiene for many Brits residents amid Covid-19 concerns
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She waits patiently for her turn to fill the large containers stacked at her feet from two huge water tanks, supplied by the charitable garage owner.
It’s day five of the national 21-day lockdown to contain the deadly coronavirus pandemic but residents of Lethlabile, located on the rural outskirts of Brits, fill the dusty streets. Some push wheelbarrows piled with buckets, others carry containers, to get water.
Soon, it’s Thage’s turn. Using a gloved hand, she opens a tap, watching as hers fills with the clear, precious water. But she is worried. “They say we must stay home to prevent getting infected but there’s no way we can stay home without water,” says Thage, her voice muffled by her protective mask.
She uses this water for drinking, cooking and to do her family’s laundry. There’s little left to regularly wash hands and prevent infection by Covid-19.
“How do they expect us to wash our hands when we don’t have water? How are we going to fight this disease? There’s no way. Our water from the tap is dirty. It looks like sewage and it stinks.”
Taps have run dry, or dirty, in the embattled Madibeng municipality for years, sparking deadly protests in 2014 over failed water services.
Madibeng, which is under administration, has collapsed, says frustrated ward councillor Merriam Banda. “And now we have this coronavirus. In the past month, the water situation has worsened. There is no such thing as a 21-day quarantine - how can you stay home when you don’t have water?”
Green JoJo tanks fill yards. “There hasn’t been water for years, my ward is the worst. The petrol station gives free water to the community or people with boreholes sell water - 20 litres for R1 or R2 - but what about those who don’t have money or don’t have transport to get the water?”
Water tankers are seldom seen, says Banda. “Sometimes, their water is dirty.”
This week, Lindiwe Sisulu, Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, announced 98 water tanks had been delivered in Madibeng to help combat the spread of Covid-19.
While Brits resident Leon Basson welcomes the emergency intervention, questions remain. “Where and when will these tanks be distributed and how will they keep them filled?” asks Basson, the DA’s spokesperson on water and sanitation.
Last week, Deputy Minister David Mahlobo, on a visit to Brits, reportedly remarked how Madibeng’s water “will kill people” after social media posts on the area’s dirty water, and lack of water, during the Covid-19 outbreak.
“The problem is the purification plant that is not coping with the quality of water from Hartbeespoort Dam,” explains Basson.
“There are a lot of pipe bursts, leaving communities without water for long periods. The municipality only has one technical team to repair the pipes.”
He is hopeful Magalies water will be used to provide safe water to Madibeng. Sputnik Ratau, the department’s spokesperson, says it is looking into the possibility. “Some legalities would have to be taken care of.”
In her one-room RDP home, a frail Belina Moeketsi sits on the bed she shares with her three grandchildren and daughter. “I’m scared of the coronavirus but there is just no water to wash our hands with or even to take my medication. Water is medicine for everything, but if you don’t have it, you can do nothing.”
Covid-19 has highlighted the connection between accessing water and exposure to illness for people living in poverty, wrote Dina Lupin Townsend, a visiting researcher at Wits, who specialises in environmental law and human rights, in an article this week.
While information and advice on Covid-19 changes at an alarming rate, one message has remained consistent: wash your hands. “As the number of infections in Africa and Asia grows, the messaging on handwashing becomes more complex.
There is nothing simple about washing your hands when you have extremely limited access to clean water... In South Africa, people living in informal settlements often share a small number of water taps and toilets with hundreds of others. Collecting water and using toilets means standing for hours, often in crowded conditions. Not only is social distancing impossible in these circumstances, few are able to collect enough water for cooking, washing clothing and regular handwashing.”
Alana Potter, the director of research and advocacy at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, says the poorer, more rural or less formal a household is, the less likely it is to have access to sufficient good-quality water and safe sanitation.
“Covid-19 has shone a light on this profound pre-existing inequality and provides clear clues as to how it is driven. The emergency measures are welcome, but they need to be better monitored and the government needs to account against them. Importantly, the emergency measures need to lead to sustainable, lasting solutions, in housing and in basic services provision.”
Though handwashing is still effective using small quantities of low-quality water “as long as it is a) with soap, and b) the soap is worked up into a lather by handwashing for 20 seconds”, limited access to water and safe sanitation undoubtedly places people at higher risk.
“Government communication has focused on which services are essential from the provider perspective. They have not made it clear that people living in rural areas and informal settlements who have to share water and sanitation facilities are even allowed to leave their homes to do this ... There is a real risk that people will revert to unsafe water sources and to open defecation for fear of standing in queues or for fear of government sanction.
“It’s well established by the World Health Organisation and others that the further people live from a water source, the less water they collect. Combined with social distancing and sanction-related anxieties, this means there is likely less water available at household level for drinking, hygiene and food preparation, which is extremely concerning.”
Sisulu has announced 41000 tanks are being distributed.
“The real/current number appears to be far lower, although it seems from following their Twitter feed, this is happening. It is unclear who will fill these tanks. The minster called for licensed water associations to do it. It’s important that publicly accessible information is provided so this can be monitored.”
There needs to be far stronger connection between communities signalling water-related distress and the provision of emergency water by national and local government. “We now know the virus is in faecal matter. It’s urgent that pit latrines and chemical toilets are hygienically emptied,” - a significant challenge as there are at least 4million pit latrines in South Afica.
In Lethlabile, local councillor Mahlase Samuel Maloi, holds up his “evidence”: a bottle of dark brown liquid. “This was the water coming out my tap on Sunday. How can you wash your hands if the water looks like this?”
Standing in her son’s yard, Martha Letsholo, 73, tells how her faith in the government has faded. “The water problems are persistent. They say corona is here and we must wash our hands but we are failing to wash. That will affect our lives and our children’s lives. They say us elderly people are at risk. We must rather go and book our graves,” she laughs bitterly. “That’s what we must do according to our government here. We must wash our hands or die.
“We have to queue for water. All the precautionary measures are failing here in Madibeng. There’s nothing we can do to save our lives.”