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‘Day zero’: This town is counting down the days until its water taps run dry

It’s the bumpy road – which winds between tight slums and state-funded beige houses – that makes it difficult to balance containers filled with 70 liters of water on its way back.

“At home, you feel far away when you push 70 kilograms of water in a wheelbarrow,” said the 49-year-old resident of the impoverished South African township of Kwanobuhle.

Taps dried up in parts of Kwanobuhle in March, and since then thousands of residents have relied on a single communal tap to supply their homes with drinking water. And the township is just one of many townships in the Nelson Mandela Bay area of ​​Gqeberha town that rely on a system of four dams that have been steadily drying up for months. There hasn’t been enough heavy rain to replenish them.

Now much of the city is counting down to “day zero”, the day when all the taps run dry, when no significant amount of water can be extracted. That’s in about two weeks, unless authorities seriously ramp up their response.

The wider Eastern Cape region of South Africa suffered a severe multi-year drought between 2015 and 2020, which devastated the local economy, particularly its agricultural sector. It had only a brief respite before falling back into drought at the end of 2021.

Like so many of the world’s worst natural resource crises, the severe water shortage here is a combination of mismanagement and distorted weather patterns caused by human-induced climate change.

Morris Malambile says pushing a wheelbarrow full of water canisters every day is

On top of that, thousands of leaks throughout the water supply system mean that much of the water that comes out of dams may never reach homes. Poor maintenance, such as a faulty pump on a main water supply, only made the situation worse.

This has left Malambile – who lives with her sister and four children – no choice but to drive around the township with her wheelbarrow every day for the past three months. Without this daily ritual, he and his family would have no drinking water at all.

“People who don’t live here have no idea what it’s like to wake up in the morning, and the first thing that comes to mind is water,” Malambile said. His family has enough containers to hold 150 liters of water, but every day he fills about half of them while the rest is still used at home.

“Tomorrow those are empty, and I have to bring them back,” he said. “It’s my routine, every day, and it’s tiring.”

Countdown to day zero

The outlook for significant rains to help replenish reservoirs here looks bleak, and if things continue as they are, around 40% of Gqeberha town will be left without running water at all.

The Eastern Cape relies on weather systems known as “minimal lows”. Slow-moving weather systems can produce rains of more than 50 millimeters (about 2 inches) in 24 hours, followed by days of persistent wet weather. The problem is, that kind of rain just doesn’t come.

The next few months do not paint a promising picture either. In its seasonal climate forecast, the South African Meteorological Service predicts below normal rainfall.

This is not a recent trend. For nearly a decade, the catchments of Nelson Mandela Bay’s main supply dams have received below average rainfall. Water levels have slowly declined to the point where all four dams sit at a combined level of less than 12% of their normal capacity. According to city officials, less than 2% of the remaining water supply is actually usable.

Cape Town’s 2018 water crisis, which was also triggered by the previous severe drought as well as management issues, is fresh on people’s minds here. City residents would line up for their individually rationed 50 liters of water each day, for fear of reaching day zero. He never reached that point, but he got dangerously close. Strict rationing allowed the city to halve its water consumption and avoid the worst.

And with no heavy rain expected, Nelson Mandela Bay officials are so worried about their own zero day that they are asking residents to drastically reduce their water usage. They simply have no choice, said the municipality’s water supply manager, Joseph Tsatsire.

“While it is difficult to control each person’s consumption, we hope to get the message across that it is crucial that everyone reduces their consumption to 50 liters per person per day,” he said.

A sign urging residents to limit their water consumption in the suburb of Gqeberha.
To put that into perspective, the average American uses more than seven times that amount, at 82 gallons (372 liters) per day.

While some parts of the city will likely never feel the full impact of a possible zero day, various interventions are underway to help people in so-called “red” areas where their taps inevitably dry up.

Earlier this month, the South African national government sent a high-ranking delegation to Nelson Mandela Bay to take charge of the crisis and implement contingency strategies to stretch the town’s latest dwindling supply.

Finding and repairing leaks was a focus, while plans are underway to extract “dead storage water” below current levels from supply dams. Boreholes have been drilled in some places to extract groundwater.

Some of the interventions – including repairing leaks and trucking in water – mean some people who had lost their water supply at home are starting to have a trickle from their taps at night. But that’s not enough, and authorities are looking for bigger, longer-term solutions to a problem that will only get worse as the Earth warms.
Workers constructing a water collection point in the Walmer suburb of Gqeberha.
South Africa is naturally drought-prone, but the kind of multi-year droughts that cause so much misery and disruption are becoming more common.

A desalination plant – to purify water from the oceans for public consumption – is under consideration, although such projects take months of planning, are expensive and often contribute more to the climate crisis, when fueled by fossil fuels.

Residents of Kwanobuhle are worried about the future, wondering when the crisis will end.

At the communal tap, Babalwa Manyube, 25, fills her own water canisters while her one-year-old daughter waits in her car.

“Flushing the toilet, cooking, cleaning – these are problems we all face when there is no water in the taps,” she said. “But raising a baby and having to worry about water is a whole different story. And when will that end? No one can tell us.”

Adapt at home

In Kwanobuhle, public housing is for people with little or no income. Unemployment is rampant and crime is on the rise. The streets are crowded with people looking for money. Former shipping containers operate as makeshift hair salons.

Just across the metro is Kamma Heights, a new leafy suburb located on a hill with a beautiful, sweeping view of the city. It is punctuated by several newly built luxury homes, and residents can often be seen sitting on their balconies, enjoying the last rays of sunshine before the sun sets behind the horizon.

Some residents of Kamma Heights are wealthy enough to secure an emergency water supply. Rhett Saayman, 46, breathes a sigh of relief every time it rains and he hears the water flowing in the reservoirs he has erected around his house over the past two years.

Her plan to save money on water in the long term has proven to be an invaluable investment in securing her household water supply.

Saayman has a storage capacity of 18,500 liters. Water for general household use, such as bathrooms, passes through a 5 micron particulate filter and carbon block filter, while drinking and cooking water passes through a reverse osmosis filter.

Rhett Saayman standing next to one of his many water tanks at his home in Kamma Heights.

“We still depend on municipal water from time to time when we haven’t had enough rain, but it can happen two or three times a year, and normally only for a few days at a time,” he said. declared. “The last time we used municipal water was in February, and since then we have had enough rain to feed ourselves.”

He added: “Looking at the way things are going in the city, it’s really a relief to know that we have clean water and enough to flush the toilet and take a shower. Our investment is paying off. its fruit.”

Residents in many parts of the Bay Area are being urged to reduce their usage so that water can be routed through standpipes – temporary pipes placed in strategic locations so that water can be diverted to areas who need it most.

This means that some of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods, such as Kama Heights, could see a huge drop in their water supply, and they too will have to queue at communal taps, just like those in Kwanobuhle do.

Looking ahead, local weather authorities have painted a worrisome picture for months to come, with some warnings that the problem has been left to rot for so long it may be impossible to reverse.

“We’ve been warning city officials about this for years,” said Garth Sampson, spokesman for the South African Meteorological Service at Nelson Mandela Bay. “Whether you want to blame politicians and civil servants for their mismanagement, or the public for not conserving water, it doesn’t matter anymore. more.”

Water flows from a tap at a water collection point in the suburb of Walmer in Gqeberha, South Africa.  This is one of many collection areas set up in the city.

According to Sampson, the watersheds feeding Nelson Mandela Bay need about 50 millimeters of rain in a 24-hour period for there to be a significant impact on dam levels.

“Looking at the stats from the last few years, our best chance of seeing 50 millimeter events will probably be in August. If we don’t see significant rainfall by September, then our next best chance is not until around March of the year. next year, which is concerning,” he said.

“The only way to end this water crisis is with a flood. But fortunately or unfortunately – depending on who you ask – there are no forecasts suggesting rain of this magnitude anytime soon.”

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