‘Day Zero’ water crisis in Gqeberha on the eastern cape of South Africa

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JOHANNESBURG – Activists in Gqeberha have long warned of “day zero” – the moment when the taps in this South African coastal city will run dry. Years of severe drought and municipal mismanagement have brought Gqeberha closer and closer to that reality. Now day zero is almost here.

On Monday, city officials announced that one of its four large dams had reached a level so low that barges trying to extract water instead sucked in mud. Another dam is expected to fail in the next two weeks, a third in about a month. Large parts of the city can, according to local officials, be left completely without running water by the end of the month.

Four years ago, when Cape Town announced that it was approaching its own day zero, the world turned around. The headlines blared that it was the first time in modern history that a big city would be without running water. Gqeberha, on the other hand, has received some international attention.

For many in South Africa, water scarcity has long been a way of life. Recurring droughts in the region – as experts say, are almost certainly exacerbated by climate change – combined with dilapidated infrastructure and poor maintenance have led to repeated water outages in Nelson Mandela Bay, where Gqeberha is located, as well as in other cities.

Since 2015, Gqeberha, formerly known as Port Elizabeth, has been in the grip of a historic drought. But the city estimates it is also losing about a third of its water supply due to leaks in its pipelines and has a backlog of about 3,000 unresolved leaks, according to Luvuyo Bangazi, spokesman for the municipality’s joint operations crisis committee.

Sibusiso Khasa, a proponent of Amnesty International in South Africa, said that when he visited Nelson Mandela Bay last week, he often saw water flowing from burst pipes, creating man-made lakes on roads and fields, while residents nearby complained. that their faucets were dry. .

“Yes, it is a drought disaster. And yes, climate change is a factor, but there has also been a mistake at the municipal level in correcting these leaks,” he said.

Nelson Mandela Bay is ruled by a volatile coalition government, and water-related city appointments have been reversed repeatedly over the past many years. Last year, South Africa’s national finance ministry labeled the city “dysfunctional” with more than $ 1 billion in “irregular spending” between 2018 and 2020, and city officials have been implicated in several high-profile graffiti cases in recent years.

“You have to admit that political challenges or instability in the administrations have had an inevitable spill-over effect on decision-making” related to water, Bangazi said.

Like many crises in South Africa, Gqeberha’s water shortage is also a study in inequality. Although power outages have affected the entire area, residents of the city’s fortified suburbs can offset the impact by drilling wells or simply buying bottled water. But a large portion of Nelson Mandela Bay’s population lives in townships, the sub-resources, apartheid-era communities that were originally built around South African cities to house black workers. These areas still have the least functional infrastructure and the most dense populations.

“There is water apartheid here,” said Siyabulela Mama, a member of the Water Crisis Committee, a group set up to speak on behalf of the working-class community of Nelson Mandela Bay. In his township Zwide, he says running water only comes at intervals. Residents are forced to rely on roaming tankers, collecting water in buckets for drinking, cooking, washing clothes and bathing.

In Kwa Nobuhle, a township in the nearby town of Kariega, Ntombentle Nelana says much of her life now revolves around finding water and preserving its supply. At her home, she says, water only comes out of the taps for a few hours a day, usually in the middle of the night. “If you sleep and you do not hear it, you can easily miss it,” she said. The city sends out water tankers, “but you do not know when they will arrive.”

Nelana can no longer afford to water her garden, which she once relied on for spinach, peppers and watermelons. “When you wash your body, you keep that water to wash your clothes on, and once you wash your clothes, you keep it for the toilet,” she says. But sometimes it’s not enough, and Nelana, whose only job is a part-time job as a gardener for the municipality, has to buy bottled water in local shops. “It’s expensive for me,” she said.

Bangazi says the only time the water is shut off is when maintenance is being performed on the system. “There are no dry taps in Nelson Mandela Bay,” he claims.

But city officials have urged all residents to limit their daily consumption to 50 liters – about four toilet flushes. Doing so, they say, will help delay “day zero” by a month or more, giving local authorities enough time to build infrastructure to divert water from a still-functioning dam that supplies another part of the municipality . Similar water-saving measures helped Cape Town avert disaster in 2018.

On Tuesday, the municipal council approved an emergency response plan from the water and sanitation department. All the while, the water level kept falling.

“The government has known since 2016 that there was a drought,” Khasa said. “So why do they only intervene now when it’s too late?”

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