South Africa

Maverick Citizen Eastern Cape: Water woes continue for parched communities – despite emergency plan

Nosintu Kwepile and her fellow residents of Nqamakwe Village in the Eastern Cape rejoice after they finally received their water tank five months after lockdown began. (Photo: Nosintu Kwepile)

Communities in and around Butterworth are still struggling to access water, despite an emergency plan to provide water tanks and extensive grant funding for the drilling of boreholes and construction of infrastructure.

The Eastern Cape MEC for Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Xolile Nqatha, this week issued a stern warning against those who are “hell-bent” on destroying water infrastructure at Butterworth and in some parts of the province – but communities say they have been waiting in vain to receive a water tank or even water in their taps.

The Butterworth water treatment works was refurbished last year at a cost of R8-million during a crippling drought that saw the dams in the area running dry. After that, the Amathole Municipality received millions of rand in grants for boreholes, new infrastructure and rainwater tanks.

Nqatha said that on 21 July a pump station in Butterworth was vandalised and its corrugated roof was stolen. On 30 July a reservoir cable was destroyed and on 1 August the telemetry cables between the water plant and the reservoir were cut.

“I have learnt with much shock of the rate of vandalism of water infrastructure that has to ensure such delivery is a reality, especially considering the urgent need to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. Vandalism of water infrastructure is amongst the worst offences being perpetrated by some criminal elements in our respective communities,” Nqatha said.

He said those vandalising water infrastructure should face the full might of the law.

The MEC also urged communities to use water sparingly. 

“Whilst community members are encouraged to wash their hands regularly with soap and water to curb the spread of Covid-19, I would like to urge water users to do so without wastage and save as much water as possible.”

He called on communities to remain vigilant and report any vandalism to the police and to take charge of the infrastructure provided to them and ensure its safety.

But, in Butterworth, a resident of Extension 6, Mbasa Ntongana, has accused the Amathole District Municipality officials of neglecting the poor communities of Amathole.

“In 2019 we brought Butterworth town on standstill complaining about this water cut crisis. Even the premier [Oscar Mabuyane] and MEC [Nqatha] visited us but they never restored the water to all areas,” he said.

In August 2019 residents blocked the N2 highway between Butterworth and East London with burning tyres because of a severe water shortage in the area. After good summer rains some dams in the area filled up but vandalism to infrastructure has now led to more water outages.

At the end of 2019, Gcuwa and Xilinxa, the two dams supplying Butterworth, were at 0%. According to the latest figures available from the Department of Water and Sanitation, the Gcuwa dam is now 81.1% full while the Xilinza dam is only at 4.5%.

Drought rollover of more than R57-million in funding for Mnquma Local Municipality was approved for 33 boreholes and infrastructure to connect them to the water treatment plant. At the time, 70 rainwater tanks were also allocated to the Amathole District Municipality.

However, Ntongana said that since 2019 the municipality had not bothered to solve the water crisis.

“Even though we blamed those who vandalised the pump station, Amathole District Municipality had failed us and needs to be held accountable for this situation. People are angry and almost all rural areas here are without water,” Ntongana said.

Meanwhile, Harvey Ntshoko, a water activist from Centane, also in the Amathole District Municipality, who was arrested at the start of lockdown for convening a meeting about water for his villages, said residents still do not have water. Charges of contravening lockdown regulations were brought against him but were withdrawn after lawyers from the Centre for Environmental Rights intervened.

“When we cook now, we fetch water from the river, and that water is very dangerous because we share that water with livestock. Some of the livestock have died by the river when we recently faced drought, and those corpses are still visible in some parts of river banks.

Ntshoko said residents were affected by the water crisis in Amathole even before the vandalism of the pump station. 

“The situation is worse, bad now, we can’t do anything. We had a meeting last week with our lawyers about this water problem and we are in the process of taking the municipality to court,” Ntshoko said.

The community of Xilinxa this week celebrated when they were finally brought a water tank by the municipality. But, community activist Nosintu Kwepile said, it took months of constant angry messages to officials to get this far.

“After all our programmes were locked down by the break-out of the Covid-19 pandemic, we couldn’t just sit and watch our community starve and die in their homes. Because of hunger, we started a community soup kitchen, to help relieve stress on parents. We have 13 volunteers, including young people. We are feeding 80 children and 15 adults per day, three days a week. The adults are mostly vulnerable, wheelchair and bed-ridden, and we have to deliver food to their homes. We have 56 rural areas in our ward with only three water tanks.

“A month ago our village tap ran dry. We now need water more than ever as people who help us to do the dishing up need to wash their hands with water and soap, as we can’t afford sanitisers. Our cooking equipment needs cleaning up. Our cooking area needs cleaning too.

“We also grow vegetables as we have a community garden. Our vegetables are suffering as we have no water to give them. From the shock of Covid-19 to the devastating lockdown, the spear of water scarcity is hurting my community to death. We need water more than ever to wash hands, to cook food, to grow our own vegetables, to survive, especially under lockdown.

“When we cook now, we fetch water from the river, and that water is very dangerous because we share that water with livestock. Some of the livestock have died by the river when we recently faced drought, and those corpses are still visible in some parts of river banks.

“We have made endless calls to locate the Water and Sanitation Department. We have called the local authorities and they do not come. We have been lied to several times. They tell us the pipes are being fixed and that our taps will work soon.

“It has been over a month.

“It seems as if the more we, as activists, come up with more solutions to these problems, the more we create more enemies in our local leaders.

“We are not able to survive without water. It is all I am asking for. The water issue is the biggest threat on the project and on the community as a whole.

“The only solution to this problem is water tanks so we can get water and we can fill these tanks so we can continue what we are doing and survive.”

The Amathole District Municipality did not respond to a request for comment. DM/MC

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