Probe under way into E Cape child deaths

An intensive investigation is under way to establish whether contaminated water in the Eastern Cape caused the death of nearly 80 children, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry said on Thursday.

The water affairs department, the Department of Health and the Ukhahlamba municipality had formed a joint committee to “get to the bottom” of what caused the death of the children, said water affairs department spokesperson Linda Page.

Earlier this week, media reports said nearly 80 children from the towns of Barkly East, Maclear, Sterkspruit and Elliot had died from diarrhoea and other complications.

An official health report, tabled last week at a closed council meeting, indicated that there had been a breakdown in a water-purification works in October last year.

Urgent action, including declaring an emergency in the area, was apparently recommended but not carried out.

The municipality said the Cloete Joubert Hospital in Barkly East failed to report the deaths in time for a proper investigation but a senior hospital manager said the municipality did nothing until 15 deaths were reported.

On Thursday, the water affairs department said water specialists were assessing treatment processes and analysing samples.

Initiatives like boiling water, adding bleach to drinking water and cleaning household water-storage containers were also under way.

Page said the matter was “complicated” by the fact a number of towns supplied by a variety of water sources appeared to have been affected.

“A variety of social and economic factors are also at play and therefore some of these could also be considered as contributors,” she said.

Spokesperson for the Ukhahlamba municipality Toto Wonga said a broader investigation was needed to establish the cause of the baby deaths.

“We are not necessarily saying it is not water ... hence let the investigations take place.”

Wonga said technical managers were in the process of installing another treatment works in affected areas.

“We are going to start warning the public,” he said.

While he conceded that perhaps a warning could have gone out to the public earlier about a possible problem with the water, “that problem is not a long lasting problem”.

“Things are being done to ensure the water is clean.”

Wonga said the municipality had learned about the baby deaths “by chance” and had out of its own initiative and “out of a concern for loss of life” begun its investigations.

“Had it not been for the municipality ... no one would have known so many children could be lost today.”

Earlier, the South African Broadcasting Corporation reported that Nongazi Sopose, the mother of one of the babies who died, planned to sue the government for compensation.

“Some kind of an assistance is necessary for those [who have been affected],” said Woga.

He said especially the families who had not yet buried their babies should be helped by the provincial government.

Portfolio committee on water affairs and forestry chairperson Cornelia September said the committee would be embarking on an emergency visit to the affected Eastern Cape areas.

“It’s quite important to get first-hand information about the situation.

“It will enable us to a take report back to Parliament [and] to take any relevant decisions on our own findings.”

A conclusive answer on whether the water was contaminated should not take long, she said.

September said the committee was worried at the moment that the municipality and hospital seemed to be apportioning blame on each other.

Instead, the important thing was to find out exactly what happened.

“Who has been doing what and not doing what?”

September said people affected by the possibly contaminated water should consider contacting the Human Rights Commission.

“The Human Rights Commission should as a matter of urgency undertake to look into [the matter].”

On Thursday, Independent Democrats MP Lance Greyling said boreholes should be drilled to provide clean water in affected Eastern Cape areas.—Sapa

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