Thousands of people in one of South Africa’s most important economic zones are at risk of drying up within weeks.
A severe drought has emptied the dams in the southern Nelson Mandela Bay municipality, including the coastal town of Gakeberha, the three main reservoirs that supply nearly one-third of its 1.3 million people. Most of the remaining water is substandard and excessive use of chemicals has killed at least two children, cattle and plants.
Water shortages are reminiscent of the plight of Cape Town four years ago, when a drought forced more than 4 million residents to halve their daily expenses. This is also a sign of things to come – the government estimates that water demand will exceed national supply in the next two years and the country will face a deficit of about 20% by the end of the decade.
A committee made up of local residents said in a statement that “Nelson Mandela Bay is currently facing an unprecedented crisis in its basic water supply.” The Kauga Dam, which supplies the region, is expected to run out by the end of the month, “causing the taps in the western part of Nelson Mandela Bay to dry up. We’ve reached Day Zero, “he said.
South Africa and other countries on the continent are most at risk for food and water insecurity caused by extreme weather, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to scientists, global warming due to human emissions of greenhouse gases is leading to more frequent and more extreme floods and droughts on the world’s poorest continent.
Nelson Mandela Bay was hit by a severe drought in 2016 and the dams were never filled, with levels down to a whopping 20% last year. The area usually receives rainfall throughout the year.
Gqeberha and its environs pass through 290 megaliters (76 million gallons) of water per day, which the National Water and Sanitation Department says is about one-fifth higher, accounting for 65% of household costs and business balance. The municipality is the main economic center of the Eastern Cape province, accounting for about 7.7% of South Africa’s $ 429 billion gross domestic product.
Volkswagen AG is one of several multinational companies operating in the area. Although its manufacturing plant in the industrial city of Kariga was not affected by the water shortage, it is concerned about the impact on its suppliers and employees, especially those who live in the town of Quanobuhle, which has been identified as a high-risk. Rainwater is collected at the area plant and the water it uses is recycled, it said in an email to the question.
The 9,000-hectare (22,200-acre) Coega Special Economic Industrial Zone, located north of Gqeberha and one of the government’s major development projects, has also been affected by water shortages. Zone spokesman Simlindel Mankina said companies had used rainwater tanks and had to contend with reduced water pressure and limited flow.
Although environmental clearance was granted last year for a desalination plant in Koega, construction has not yet begun.
Authorities urged residents to use a maximum of 50 liters of water per day.
“There is a need for a very conscious reduction in water demand,” said Sputnik Ratau, a spokesman for the water department. “We have to move in this direction” if the municipality is stuck in its water allocation and builds new infrastructure in the long run and more water can be made available by connecting the river basins that supply the region, he said.
Politics has further complicated the problem of insufficient rainfall. In the last two municipal elections, no party has won a single majority in Nelson Mandela Bay, and the region has been ruled by one unstable coalition after another, which has changed power five times in many years. This leads to policy uncertainty and a lack of accountability, with the new administration blaming their predecessors for the growing water crisis.
Dennis van Hoisten, chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber, said the response was “insufficient” due to the ongoing instability in the city council and its impact on the municipality’s ability to provide basic services.
In an unofficial settlement in Missionvalle, 15 kilometers (7 miles) northeast of Giberha town center, water gushed from a communal tap and residents complained that the leak could be indefinite after months of municipal workers not responding to their complaints.
According to Siabulela Mama, a member of the residents’ water crisis committee, some poor communities have already gone without water for days or even weeks.
“They line up for hours on the communal calls of some working-class communities,” he said. The quality of water is also so bad that it makes people sick so they are either forced to boil it, which increases their electricity consumption, or they have to buy bottled water, he said.
The municipality wants to drill boreholes to increase water supply, fix mesh systems and replace old pipes, and work on a plan to divert water from the country’s largest dam to the western region, according to Joseph Satsir, its acting executive director and engineer for infrastructure. More than 30,000 leaks have been repaired since 2020, leaving a backlog of about 4,000, he said in an interview posted on the municipality’s website.
Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Eugene Johnson declined to comment, and his office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether there were any emergency plans for the suburbs.
According to Rantau of the water department, reducing rolling water is not an option to reduce costs.
“Water leakage has a negative impact on sick and aging infrastructure,” he said, adding that changes in water pressure could cause pipes to burst and cause more water damage. “The situation is dire and it is worrying and causing widespread concern everywhere.”
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