Eastern Cape ‘on the brink of a water crisis’

Eight Eastern Cape villagers died this week after drought forced them to drink polluted river water, sparking fears of a wider water quality crisis in the province.

The affected village, Mpheko, lies in a drought-hit area including Umtata and the Wild Coast, where ground water has dried up. The deaths were the result of stomach infections caused by drinking water from the Mpheko River, which is unfit for human consumption.

‘There definitely has been a spike in stomach bugs in the past month or so and I know about districts where baby deaths might be attributed to the water,” a medical worker working near Umtata told the Mail & Guardian. ‘The government should be worried.”

June is the beginning of the dry season in the region and no rain is expected until at least August.

In Nqileni village in Transkei there is no piped water for a 40km radius, and almost all the water consumed by villagers is drawn from springs. But almost half the springs have dried up and the remaining ones are not far from empty, said Dave Martin, from the NGO Bulungula Incubator. Martin lives in the village.


‘I expect all our springs to be dry by the end of July, in which case the only water source will be deadly polluted rivers,” he said. ‘This is not an alarmist exaggeration: if there is no heavy rain in the next few weeks, everyone will begin drinking polluted water.”

He said communities in the area have already started taking water from ‘marginal sources”, including streams polluted by human faeces in a nearby forest. The Bubungula River nearby has been tested and was in a bad condition.

Martin says other villages in the region face the same problem.

Nqileni is in one of South Africa’s poorest districts, with no running water, electricity, health facilities or sanitation. Previously pigs were used to clean the faeces in the village, but people fell ill after eating the pigs and the practice was stopped.

Two years ago at least four babies died in the village from waterborne infections.

‘There is no water,” said headman Thandisile Gwebindlala. ‘We drink water from rivers that cows, horses and people shit in.

‘People are dying a lot because of this. I myself have a stomach bug, and the doctor said it’s the water. But I continue to drink the pills he gave me with the same water that makes me sick.”

Gwebindlala said community members drink the water without boiling it first.

‘We need water tanks and hope the government will give them to us. I have to look after my people, but there is nothing here, not even roads to bring the water tanks in,” he said.

The medical worker said there was little he could do to help the villagers without an improved water supply.

‘We’re on the brink of a big calamity that will push this province over the edge,” he predicted. ‘I’m afraid more babies might die.”

Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Buyelwa Sonjica said her department has launched an investigation into the deaths.

Sonjica said departmental officials have been sent to the area to collect samples from the Mpheko River and Phantsi Kwentaba spring, where most villagers source their water.

‘The department will also deploy other resources to promote health and hygiene and [give] closer attention to disinfection of water meant for domestic consumption,” she said.

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Related stories

Eskom burns on through bailout

Despite alarm over the recent lifeline, state says the power utility is not on the brink of collapse

On the horns of a dilemma

Ahead of a crucial conference on international wildlife, the debate over whether to allow trade in rhino horn to fund conservation efforts rages on

Headless cats and government promises back in 2005

Government interest in the pollution claims appears to have been aroused by Constitutional Court action launched against President Thabo Mbeki

MultiChoice set for organic growth

The firm is countering threats from streaming services and is investing strongly in local content

The exotic game market goes bang

Insane prices were paid for high-value species — then there was a lull, followed by a crash

SA fails to stub out dodgy ciggies

The wars at Sars have provided fertile ground for the illicit tobacco trade to grow
Advertising

Subscribers only

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my...

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

More top stories

Covid-19 info lags as cases shoot up

Vital information apps and websites are outdated as cases begin to mushroom, especially near the coast, just in time for the December holidays

DA leader bought wife a car with ‘corruption’ earnings

Senior Ekurhuleni councillor Shabangu purchased a Ford SUV from an alleged R1.2-million kickback

SAA funds may need a top-up

Industry experts predict the R10.5-billion from the treasury to rescue the airline may not be enough, but the rescue practitioners say the money is enough to ‘settle the sins of the past’

Trump’s mantra of ‘fake news’ harmed media

Viewers and readers need to trust that news outlets are accurate, balanced, fair and impartial
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…