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.