No end in sight to water crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay

A Jojo, water tank supplied by the municipality to the community of Powerline informal settlement in Motherwell. All photos by Joseph Chirume

Droughts are expected to become more frequent in southern Africa as climate change heralds extreme weather events globally.

Nomalanga Sithole of Kariega (Uitenhage) scoffs the day she was transferred by her company from their George branch to Kariega to replace a colleague who had resigned. She says her excitement quickly turned into a nightmare when she arrived in a town buckling under a crippling water shortage. It was 2019 and the Eastern Cape was battling an unprecedented drought.

Sithole explained, “Yes, I really regret coming to work in Kariega. There are days I cannot take a bath because I won’t be having water. My life has drastically changed for the worse because I have to battle to get water. There are times the town can run dry for a week. The municipality tankers provide water intermittently. They don’t have a timetable and when they finally arrive, there is a stampede among residents.”

Sithole grew up in George where she left her three children and two siblings with her mother who owns a government subsidised house. She often visits on weekends and public holidays.

Sithole is not the only one facing a dry tap at home, but joins thousands of other angry residents who grapple every day with the water shortage in Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB). The acute shortage of water has been felt mainly by residents of Uitenhage, KwaNobuhle, Khayamnandi, Despatch, Northern areas and the Western areas who brave days without a single drop of water from their taps.

The drought in the metro is a thorn in the eye of every resident and visitors. The water shortage has stubbornly refused to improve despite recent heavy rains that pummelled the metro’s catchment areas.

A huge pond filled with clean water coming from an underground pipe in NU30, Motherwell. The metro is battling a record drought but they don’t repair underground pipes leading to more water woes through loss. This pond is one of several in Motherwell.

This is attributed to the region experiencing a record drought for the past five years with very little rains falling in the dams that provide water to the metro. The dwindling water levels in the dams prompted the municipality to force residents to apply water saving methods but that has yielded no results. NMB gets a third of its water from four dams, namely Kouga, Churchill, Impofu and Groendal whose current total water capacity sits at 12,37%.

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Two thirds of the water comes from Gariep Dam in the Orange River, Free State. The water travels through a maze of waterways and dams and flows through the Orange and Fish Rivers until it reaches the Nooitegedagt water treatment works, outside Addo. People’s hopes had been placed on the treatment plant but its completion has dragged on at a snail’s pace for many years allegedly due to financial difficulties.

The municipality has been urging residents to put water restrictors on their taps and to recycle water. The use of clean water to water gardens and the use of hose pipes was banned, as was the re-filling of swimming pools as well as using fresh water for car washes. Residents have also been urged to buy rain water harvesting tanks.

Besides the drought that unleashed the current water scarcity, an ageing sewer and water supply system that causes bulk water pipelines to burst is also blamed for the water woes in the municipality. Burst pipes are a common sight in all wards of the metro.

Recently, the municipality introduced borehole drilling saying it is one of the alternative water resources that will keep the city afloat as no significant rain is expected soon.

A burst sewer pipe in NU 1, Motherwell. A lot of water is being lost in the municipality due to unattended burst sewer and water pipes at a time when water is scarce in the metro.

On Tuesday, senior municipal officials visited a site in St George’s Park and Moregrove Wellfields where water will be extracted from boreholes, treated and fed into the city’s bulk water system.

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Mayoral Committee Member for Infrastructure and Engineering, Cllr Thsonono Buyeye said, “The NMB’s drought mitigation plans are progressing well, with the construction of boreholes in Port Elizabeth currently underway.

“Through these projects we will be assisting our dams that are currently very low. In St George’s Park, we are constructing four boreholes; these will be supported by the treatment works that are already at the site and the pump station we are also building on the site.

“We are looking at producing a total of 3-million litres of water in St George’s Park once the project is done. The water from the boreholes will be pumped directly into the Churchill pipeline in order to feed other reservoirs at a high risk of running empty and this will reduce abstraction from the severely stressed western dams, that way preserving the little water that is left and developing a sustainable water supply resource for the future.”

Buyeye said the St George’s Park project is expected to be completed in August 2022, while the Moregrove Wellfield one is due to be completed in May 2022, weather permitting.

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About Joseph Chirume 45 Articles
I was born in the shoe manufacturing town of Gweru in Zimbabwe,1970. I came to South Africa and did some odd jobs before writing for a number of publications. At present I am doing a Masters in Journalism through distance learning.