/ 25 May 2023

Broken: Eskom, Transnet, Post Office – and so is South Africa’s water

Nearly half of South Africa’s drinking water systems are in a poor state. (Getty Images)

South Africa was long known for its clean water, but not for at least the past two decades. Now that a cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal has, at the time of writing, claimed the lives of 17 people and left about 100 ill, the water crisis is making headlines. 

People living in Hammanskraal and surrounding areas have been told by the City of Tshwane not to drink the tap water. 

They have been asked to boil water, practise good hand hygiene and ensure that water containers are properly cleaned. Residents have also been asked not to partake in any religious activities such as baptisms in rivers and streams. That’s how bad the cholera outbreak is.

Generally, the country’s water in urban settings is clean for drinking, but the reality in rural areas, as well as informal settlements and many townships, is far worse. Raw water sources such as streams, rivers and dams are a different story. These test high for E Coli and coliform bacteria. This poses a huge health risk to those people who do not have piped water. 

Is this our new normal? Load-shedding is often blamed for wastewater treatment plants not effectively doing their job. Vandalism, theft and old infrastructure are also regularly blamed for the country’s water trouble. 

It’s safe to say there are myriad issues when it comes to water across the country. In Hammanskraal, for instance, there are problems with “dysfunctional and non-compliant wastewater treatment works, mismanagement, under-investment and misappropriation of funds. Along with the lack of political will and action over the past two decades, these factors have formed a perfect storm”, according to Anja du Plessis, an NRF-rated researcher specialising in water resource management in the South African context.

She described the Hammanskraal cholera outbreak as “a symptom of two decades of continued sewage pollution and neglect”.

A key problem area in South Africa is wastewater treatment plants. The Green Drop report has found that more than 80% of wastewater treatment systems are in a critical state. 

In April 2022, the Mail & Guardian reported on the problems with wastewater. The article noted how “hundreds of wastewater treatment works are in a ‘dismal state’, with experts warning of significant risks to receiving water environments, the ecosystem and human health”.  

It is hugely concerning that our wastewater is not treated effectively, given that it is  dumped into our rivers and streams. This has been a problem in KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Town, with beaches having to close.  

I recently visited Durban’s Umhlanga, where a family member became horribly sick. At the chemist, the pharmacist told me that the nausea medication had run out because so many people in the area had fallen ill. I was also told to avoid drinking or brushing my teeth with the tap water.

Du Plessis has said that the “partial or the complete lack of functioning wastewater treatment works is accompanied by significant negative implications for public health, the environment as well as socio-economic development and growth”. 

But who is to blame? In Johannesburg, for example, Rand Water blames the City of Johannesburg and the city blames Rand Water. At least, this was the case when people in the suburb of Robertsham went without water for three weeks. 

Vrededorp is another part of the city with intermittent water supply. The reasons given by Rand Water and the city is that it is driven by failing infrastructure, poor planning and load-shedding. 

In Hammanskraal, the blame game has hotted up with the national department of water and sanitation blaming the city, and vice versa. 

Who suffers from these blame games? The people. I wonder if the close to 100 sick or the families who lost loved ones in the area care for the political blame games going on in Tshwane. 

At the Jubilee District Hospital, where people were admitted after showing symptoms of cholera, Tshwane’s executive mayor, Cilliers Brink, was chased away by angry residents. The residents of Hammanskraal say the water and sewage problems have been raised many times over the past few years, yet no action was taken. Citizens have had enough. 

The water is being tested to determine where the cholera outbreak started. Regardless of the results, water and sewage have been and remain a problem that has yet to be dealt with. 

Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu noted that Hammanskraal has, for a lengthy period, had an unreliable and poor-quality potable water supply, according to Reliefweb.

The M&G has covered numerous stories from around the country about water treatment plants being neglected, not working, and sewage flowing down streets, into people’s yards and into rivers and streams. 

Now that 17 people have died, will something be done? Or are we more likely to see results if more people die?

The dysfunction runs deep in this country. Our decaying municipalities, load-shedding and the appalling state of our wastewater infrastructure needs immediate intervention. And, of course, political will is essential. 

Our leaders at all levels of government must remember that access to clean water is a basic human right. But in a country where Eskom, Transnet and the Post Office have been broken, the chances of it preventing the total collapse of the country’s water infrastructure is also likely.  

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