A court has ordered municipal authorities in Carolina to provide temporary water to residents who have now gone seven months without clean water.
But immediately after the North Gauteng High Court judgment, the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa announced that the town's water was now safe for human consumption.
This ruling follows an urgent court application by Lawyers for Human Rights and the Legal Resources Centre, on behalf of the Mpumalanga community. Their aim was to "compel the responsible authorities to provide reliable potable [drinking] water to the residents of Carolina".
They told the court that the application came about because the municipality was not meeting the basic requirements of water provision as set out in the Water Services Act. These say each person should get 25 litres of water per day, or 6 000 per household per month. The nearest water supply should also be no further than 200m away.
The point of biggest contestation was the provision that people must not go more than seven consecutive days in a month without access to water. This had been happening frequently in the last seven months, residents said.
In his ruling, Judge Moses Mavundla agreed with this point and ordered the municipality to provide Carolina residents with drinking water within 72 hours.
"I am of the view that, when fundamentally entrenched rights are violated or compromised, the matter intrinsically becomes urgent," he said.
He also ruled that the municipality must provide the court with a report within a month, outlining the progress it was making to ensure clean drinking water for residents.
Emma Algotsson, of Lawyers for Human Rights, said the finding was critical in defending the rights of communities and the environment.
"We are really happy with the judgment. It is so important for the future of our work as it sets a precedent which says local municipalities have to provide basic services, like water, even if they are not to blame for the problems that caused the failure."
The judge also ordered the municipality to work with the local community to solve the problem. This is critical, as people have been left in the dark throughout the crisis, said Algotsson.
Molewa and her department were not included in the court order because they had made several promises to provide assistance to the community, both in court and before.
Speaking after the judgment, she welcomed the court's decision.
"We welcome the decision of the court and wish to indicate that even though there is no order against us as the department of water affairs, we will ensure that the judgment against the municipality is addressed," she said.
To date her department had spent R5-million on measures to bring water to residents of the area, as well as fixing the water treatments works, she said. As a result of this she said that the latest audit sample of Carolina's drinking water showed that it is safe to drink.
"I would like to pronounce that the drinking water of Carolina be declared safe for human consumption," she said. This has been confirmed by three consecutive results from two separate laboratories, she said.
She also pointed a finger at the local municipality, and said the Water Services Act held it accountable for any problems with supply. Her department's assistance was, therefore, above and beyond what the municipality had to provide as a basic service.
The problems for Carolina started with 82mm of rainfall in two hours in January. This brought dangerous levels of heavy metals – the particles that create acid mine drainage – into the local dam and the water treatment works. This caused a failure in the works.
Initially the local municipality told people to boil their water before drinking it. This produced a white jelly that scared people away. But they had no other choice. Bottled water costs R12 for five litres, and the Jojo tanks and water tankers that the municipality promised were scarce. The only reliable and clean source of water was from the local mosque.
At the time the task team appointed to fix the immediate problem and find a long-term solution said the best solution would be to build another plant, at R250-million.
In the meantime the municipality said it would have the taps running by the end of June.
Sputnik Ratau, a spokesperson for water affairs, also made it clear last month that this was the timetable.
"We are hoping the refurbishment and upgrading of the water works will be finished by the end of the month, and we are working day and night to achieve this," he said.
Mavundla said it was clear that the municipality's assurance that the water would be declared safe by June was not the case.