Grahamstown: Empty taps and dirty buckets

Residents in the Eastern Cape have been forced to improvise to get water.

South Africa is facing a national water crisis.  Picture: Reinart Toerien/EWN

GRAHAMSTOWN - Empty taps have been the reality for the residents of the Joza and Fingo townships in Grahamstown East for the last seven years. Last year, a 16-day water crisis at Rhodes University and much of Grahamstown West put the Makana Municipality's failures firmly in the spotlight.

"We have said time and time again it is not aging infrastructure that is the problem, but maintenance and planning," says local councillor, Brian Fargher.

The Department of Water Affairs (DWA) and the Makana municipality held a meeting at the beginning of January to address water outages in the area. The meeting was opened with a claim that Grahamstown water supply is still running on a "knife's edge" because of the fact that only a single pump is operating in the area. This has led to an inconsistent water supply to the high-lying areas, particularly those in Grahamstown East.

"If you are well off and you have been living in the town then you will not be hit as hard as if you are living in the township," says Ayanda Kota, organiser of the Unemployed People's Movement (UPM).

According to Fargher, the Makana Municipality has contracted quasi-state body, Amatola Water, to rescue the water crisis. Amatola is funded by the DWA and various other parties, including a R75 million rescue package administered by the Eastern Cape Development Corporation (ECDC). Fargher said Amatola Water has taken control of almost every aspect as far as water supply is concerned and there are short and long term plans in place.

"The bottom line is that we have signed a contract for five years and that will cost the municipality about R1.2 million per month," said Fargher.

But some residents say this bailout plan is a case of 'too little too late'. Fargher confirmed that there was a backlash from residents in the township who are angry that water was returned to Rhodes University after only 16 days, but they have not had water for years. _Grocotts's Mail _recently reported unrest in Grahamstown East with residents falsely calling the fire services and demanding water.

Kota feels the municipality may have the money to resolve these problems - but has no will to take action.

"The municipality is complacent," he says. "If the crisis takes so long, and it takes an institution like Rhodes University to threaten to close down, it tells you the immensity of the problem."

Kota believes that people in Grahamstown East, who have had no consistent water supply for years, have had to improvise to keep their homes hygienic and healthy - with some residents having to get up before dawn to find water for their families. Kota says that the crisis began when the quality of water in Grahamstown was declared undrinkable. Babies were reported to have died in 2009 because of the quality of water, but no investigation ever took place. Residents were reported to have died in fires in 2011 because there was no water for the community to save them.

"If you go to the toilet, it's not even that you have the flushing system anymore, you have to use the bucket system, that's how bad it is."

On the opposite side of Grahamstown, a psychology student at Rhodes University, Melian Dott, said that the water crisis last year cost her over R4000 in medical bills and extra costs like buying drinking water just to flush the toilets.

"Our digs was high up on the hill and so we were hit by every water shortage - the longest being 15 days, also without electricity," said Dott. "Most of us were sick for most of last year because there was no hygiene, we had to cook on old dirty pots and we couldn't wash our hands."

Dott said that she walked into her psychology exam last year having not had water for seven days, which affected her studying.

Businesses also felt the weight of the empty taps. The Grahamstown Business Forum has held discussions about taking legal action against the municipality for non-performance and loss of business.

Chairman of the forum and owner of the Graham Hotel, Eugene Repinz, said the municipality refused to communicate with them about the municipal interruptions of their business. The Graham Hotel lost hundreds of thousands of rands because conferences that were booked over December had to be cancelled at the last minute.

"We are incurring losses so need to have some kind of recourse," said Repinz.

According to Repinz, it is difficult to quantify the loss, but he can confirm that children have been taken out of the private schools in the area and local property agents have lost quite a few sales at the end of the year due to the inconsistent water supply.