Extent of SA's water crisis exposed

An Eyewitness News investigation has revealed claims of corruption, pollution and severe water shortages.

An EWN investigation spanning all nine provinces has revealed the extent of South Africa’s 'water emergency' and the growing pressure on government to deal with it. Picture: Reinart Toerien/EWN.

JOHANNESBURG - An Eyewitness News investigation spanning all nine provinces has revealed the extent of South Africa's water emergency and the growing pressure on government to deal with it.

Canvassing communities across the country has exposed claims of corruption, pollution and fortunes being made by those selling water or taking over the duties of municipalities.

EWN's investigation also explored historic problems, migration patterns, infrastructure and planning, the role of industry and threats of further protests by frustrated communities.

A man collects polluted water in the Marry-me informal settlement in Pretoria.

A tap in the Marry-me informal settlement in Pretoria.

A river in the Marry-me informal settlement in Pretoria.

According to the latest census, nine out of 10 people have such access.

But the reality on the ground, from Nkandla to Stellenbosch, paints a very different picture.

The last seven years have seen a dramatic drop in how communities perceive the quality of their water.

Millions of people don't have access at all while others report queuing for up to ten hours to get a single bucket of water.

Two weeks ago, four people protesting for water were killed in Mothutlung near Brits.

Pregs Govender, Deputy Chairperson at the South African Human Rights Commission, says South Africa has the ability and money to fix these problems and must do so urgently.

"It [government] actually has to respond to the needs of the poorest people in the country. Our Constitution is very clear; dignity is inherent for every single person."

Municipalities have had to bring in private or semi-private contractors to deal with water problems and these deals are worth millions of rands.

The commission is due to release a landmark report on the water and sanitation situation later this year.


The water crisis in Limpopo has been described as a ticking time bomb, a human rights violation and yet another blatant example of empty promises.

The death of a five-year-old boy who died in a pit toilet last week has increased pressure on government to address water shortages in schools.

But locals aren't convinced it's enough to spur officials into action.

A grade nine pupil says she isn't holding out for any immediate changes.

"We just keep telling government to do something but they never do anything. They do more talking than acting."

Thousands of schools in rural Limpopo are on the sanitation waiting list but principals say they will only believe in progress when they actually see it.


The Mpumalanga government appointed Theo van Vuuren to take over the role of Emalahleni City Manager as well as the executive functions of the mayor.

He reports decades of neglect left the water treatment system unable to cope with demand.

"The infrastructure wasn't maintained properly and wasn't expanded. Most of the infrastructure we are working with now dates back to 1994."

Van Vuuren says there was no oversight or accountability.

"The municipality stopped functioning in a proper manner. It was a free-for-all. There was a lot of corruption which took place."

He urged communities to be vigilant and demand better services from their leaders.


People in Protea South, which saw violent protests last year over basic services, say with elections coming up and the water crisis far from resolved, chaos may return to the area.

Twenty four-year-old Sipho Ndlovu says the few piped water taps scattered across the community are evidence of government's neglect of the people.

Although he says he is voting for change in the upcoming elections, he has lost faith in politicians delivering on their promises.

A woman washes her laundry with dirty tap water in Protea South in Soweto.

A man stands by a water pipe which many Protea South residents use to get their water on a daily basis.

A dirty stream where numerous Protea South residents in Soweto wash their clothes. All pictures: Reinart Toerien/EWN.


In townships outside Cape Town similar threats have been made.

Siqalo resident Prince Njokola says he is willing to risk life and limb during a march to the Western Cape legislature set to take place on 11 February.

Organisers of the march warn while they will do their best to ensure the march is peaceful, they can't exclude the possibility things may spiral out of control.

In October last year, a similar service delivery protest in the Cape Town CBD turned violent when some protesters looted stores.


In Nkandla hundreds of households go without a steady water supply.

While controversy rages around President Jacob Zuma's "fire pool" and reservoir, people in villages next door say their children often miss school because of the water problems.

An old and often dry reservoir supplies water to three communities in the area.

Women and children carry muddy buckets of water to and from the river.

Mbekeni Sibisi, who has lived in the rural hamlet his entire life, says fetching water is a daily struggle.

He and his wife raise their six grandchildren.

"I am an old man. If there is no source of water there is nothing we can do such as washing the children's uniform, making it difficult for them to attend school."

Residents rely almost completely on subsistence farming and watering crops without a steady supply of water is difficult, if not impossible.