/ 11 May 2022

Nelson Mandela Bay is on the brink of Day Zero and faces humanitarian disaster

Stage two water restrictions were introduced in Joburg this week but these will only be effective if they are enforced as they were in Cape Town during their Day Zero period. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

A humanitarian disaster is looming in the drought-hit Nelson Mandela Bay municipality, where taps are expected to run dry within large parts of the metro within weeks.

In about 30 days time, more than a third of its population, particularly in the western areas, will reach Day Zero, when they have no running water.

Barry Martin, a senior director for water and sanitation at the metro, said the water supply from the Churchill and Impofu dams will run dry in mid-June 2022, affecting over 30% of the metro’s 1.152 million residents.

By Monday, the total for the major storage dams supplying the metro was at a record low of 12.81%. These systems are the Kouga Dam (12.94%), Churchill Dam (13.31%), Impofu Dam (10.64%), Loerie Dam (40.09%) and the Groendal Dam (22.44%).

“These are the lowest average dam levels experienced for the last 20 years at least

and with the increased levels of services and developments, the municipality is heading for a humanitarian disaster.”

‘Water is life and we don’t have much left’

To avoid dry taps, consumption levels for the metro as a whole need to be urgently reduced to 230 million litres a day. However, it has still been tracking at 280 million litres a day. 

“Water consumption can still be reduced because certain customers still use too much water in terms of their water meter readings,” Martin said.

A recent water outlook report by the municipality described how “water is life and we don’t have much left”. It said, “in the event that our local supply dams run dry, the result would be that certain regions within Nelson Mandela Bay will not have running water. 

“Approximately half of all households will be affected, resulting in a significant negative impact on the entire regional economy. This, in turn, will cause an increase in waterborne diseases and other health-related issues, crime, as well as a potential breakdown in society as we know it.”

Martin said special public information sessions were held last week with councillors, business and residents to “reinforce the awareness to save water” while internal municipal maintenance teams supported by external contractors have been working to deal with water leaks. “The emergency plans have been drafted and through communal standpipes and centrally located rain water tanks, communities will be required to queue to collect water.”

On the brink of disaster

At the end of April, Denise van Huyssteen, chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber, warned how when the overall dam levels reach around 10%, more than a third of the metro is likely to have no water. Along with this, there is the high possibility that the sewage system will collapse: “If we don’t save water, we’ll have a health crisis on our hands.”

Van Huyssteen told the M&G that the only way to prevent taps from running dry is for the municipality to quickly reduce water losses under their control and for all consumers,  residents and businesses, regardless of whether they are located in the affected zones or not, to “step up their water-saving efforts”.

“All stakeholders need to unite around the goal of preventing more than a third of the metro from entering a water and sanitation crisis. The consequences of more than a third of the metro not having water could potentially result in a humanitarian crisis for communities, while negatively impacting upon the continuity of business operations.”

As organised business, the chamber is “extremely concerned” about the potentially devastating impact the water crisis may have on the metro’s economy and communities.  “This issue has been flagged for some time but there has been an inadequate response due to the ongoing instability issues facing city council and the resultant impact of this on the municipality’s ability to deliver basic services.” 

Van Huyssteen cited the protracted delay in the council passing the amended budget and unlocking the required funding to deal with water infrastructure issues as “one example of how political instability is affecting the water crisis”. 

‘We were warned’

Professor Anthony Turton, an affiliated professor in the centre for environmental management at the University of the Free State, said the crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay has been known about for many years and openly discussed in the public domain. “I am surprised that it is a surprise to anyone in authority. It seems that they choose to ignore it in the belief that if they are not concerned about it, then it will simply become a non-issue,” he said.

“Last week I was at Gariep Dam, which is overflowing. That dam was built to supply Nelson Mandela Bay, through the Orange-Fish-Sundays-Gamtoos Inter-Basin Transfer, so there is no reason why they should have no water other than the failure to maintain existing infrastructure and do accurate forward planning.” 

Serious trouble

Dr Kevin Winter, of the Future Water Institute at the University of Cape Town, said: “The scenario is that we’re in real trouble here. We’re at less than 15% in terms of the combined use of available water and there will be very limited rain coming through,” over the winter months.

“It’s very expensive to manage water in a dam that is anything between 10% and 15% because then you’ve got a lot of sediment in the water and potentially pollutants in the water as well in a concentrated reservoir.”

In most cases, he said, cities are managing their water poorly. “This is an example here of a metro that is … in disarray in terms of its own administration and that doesn’t help. You need to make sure that you’ve got a strong political organisation in a city. You’re then better able to direct some of the work that officials in charge of water and sanitation are doing.”

It seemed there had been “too little action” in terms of investment in alternative water sources, such as desalination and groundwater. Winter said the metro’s water crisis was a “wake-up call not just for Day Zero and climate change”, but for the political organisation of Nelson Mandela Bay. 

“I’ve read enough about Nelson Mandela Bay at this stage to say that mismanagement, poor management, corruption;  all of those words are coming home to roost right now and it’s absolutely unacceptable,” hesaid.

More and more, South Africa finds itself in a water and sanitation crisis. “The inflows of sewage water coming into our system, we are not taking that seriously across the country and you can see that in the recent Green Drop report. It’s a national crisis and we tend to wake up to these things because suddenly water becomes precious in a crisis and we’re not managing it during the in-between times.”

No silver bullet

According to the Democratic Alliance, the municipality has “moved Day Zero forward” by severely over-extracting water from the Kouga, Churchill and Impofu dams ignoring gazetted directives and “is now on the brink of depleting dams”. 

Martin said the municipality and the Kouga municipality “have been over-abstracting from the dams to keep the pipes to the customers full”.

Van Huyssteen acknowledged lack of rain and resultant low dam levels have been one of the factors contributing to the water crisis but several other issues have worsened the situation. “The recent Nooitgedacht Phase 3 project completion milestone is not the silver bullet everyone thinks it is. This has a limited capacity in terms of what can be supplied to the metro and current consumption requirements exceed this. 

“Also, reticulating water from the Nooitgedacht scheme throughout the municipal areas is wholly reliant on pump-station operations. However, the low dam levels have pushed operations to its limits, where stand-by pumps are in use as duty pumps.”

Frequent pump station failures “have been the norm” since December, vandalism of water pump infrastructure is on the rise, while the metro needs to tackle non-revenue water losses, standing at 40%, she said.

One local resident, who did not want to be named, said: “For me, every drop is reused at home from a hot water bottle to buckets under even the gutter piper. Then you drive down the road and watch gallons going to waste from burst water pipes. And you think, what is the point of my at-home measures? It seems like nobody cares.”