The Western Cape municipality is distributing two five-litre containers of water a day to homes in Beaufort West. The town, on the N1 between Bloemfontein and Cape Town, has almost run out of water.
It is a multiyear crisis but things have never been this bad. The municipality says this is a result of “one of the worst droughts in history”. And although the crisis in Cape Town was averted by winter rains, Beaufort West is in a summer rainfall region. It now needs the rains to return in October.
It has been more than two years since spring rains filled up the Gamka Dam, the town’s main source of water during dry spells.
The dam is supplemented by three smaller reservoirs and 32 boreholes. Five more boreholes were dug late last year, when Beaufort West got R23-million in emergency funding.
Most boreholes have been dry for a long time, with only eight having deep enough holes to get to the water table. These dried up this winter.
The three reservoirs are at lower than 1% capacity. This is the point at which water cannot be extracted.
Until now, Beaufort West’s ace card has been its wastewater treatment plant. Built after the last major drought, in 2011, the plant treats sewage to a point where it is clean enough to drink. It is the only such plant in the country. A similar one in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, allows that city to survive in an arid region.
The plant normally provides 16% of the town’s water. In the past few months, it has been the last stable source of water. But the municipality says a break in the town’s main sewage pipe on Tuesday stopped waste going into the plant. This has resulted in parts of the town running out of water.
The municipality has put level four water restrictions into place.
It is now distributing its last stocks of emergency water: each household without water is getting two five-litre containers of water each day. Some houses, where there is enough pressure, still get a trickle.
Beaufort West faces the same problems that South Africa’s other inland cities face. Coastal cities can build desalination plants — even though they are expensive — for an inexhaustible supply of water. On the Highveld, water comes from rainfall and melting snow along the Drakensberg. If that runs out, there is no other source of freshwater.