[FEATURE] Wishing for water: The crisis in SA's forgotten areas

This is the story about an NGO helping a few, yet in many ways it’s the story of South Africans living in dire conditions unknown to many city dwellers and arguably even government.

Two women pump water from a borehole in Emanyiseni, Kwa-Zulu Natal. Picture: Thomas Holder/EWN

While this is a story about an NGO helping a few, in many ways it’s the story of South Africans living in dire conditions unknown to many city dwellers and arguably even government.

Non-profit organisation Wishing Well International Foundation hosted a 10-day expedition to rural areas in Hazyview in Mpumalanga and Mathenjwa in KwaZulu-Natal to deploy over 100 water filters to homes and schools.

The areas travelled to are remote and hard to get to and here people still fetch water from boreholes and rivers and very little infrastructure exists.

The aim of the project is to provide people with clean, safe drinking water. The Bio-Foam filter is a relatively simply and affordable technology consisting of two buckets which use gravity to push water through a filtering system - purifying water obtained from boreholes, rain tanks, rivers and dams.

The device was specifically made for those who don’t generally have access to municipal water services.
The trip was themed 10-1-10 referring to the fact that for every $10 dollars [about R130] spent on one Bio-Foam filter for one person, clean safe drinking water can be provided for 10 years.

Along with H2O International the trip revealed some of the great hardships and immense poverty experienced by people in these areas.

GALLERY: The reality of life without water services

The first area of deployment was in Swalala near Hazyview in Mpumalanga. Local pastor Samuel Chauque led the team to more than 10 homes over a day and a half to deploy the first 30 filters. There’s very little development in the area, but Pastor Samuel shows a tightknit community that seems to be standing together despite the adversities they face.

Many homes we visited are run by old women and girls. I asked one woman why this was the case and she told me many men had either left or died.

Children are everywhere playing in the dusty streets, long-drop toilets are still used and the two-year drought which hit most parts of the country has left the place very dry – there’s been very little recovery.

Pastor Samuel, along with the team, use his church as a central area to demonstrate to the community how the filters are used.

It’s a simply method of pouring the dirty water into the first top bucket, adding one teaspoon of a chemical flocculent called alum to clear out the water, stirring and waiting until releasing the water through a tap into the bucket below which then uses the Bio-Foam filter to purify the water.

On the fifth day of the trip we travel through Swaziland for sight-seeing and as a short cut to get to Mathenjwa in KwaZulu-Natal for the second area of deployment.

WATCH: Wishing for water

We meet Digs Pascoe, an elderly man who along with the local community runs a small lodging area at the Thongan Village. We also meet the man on the ground Sandile Mathenjwa who takes us through the Usuthu Gorge area to a few schools to deploy the next round of filters. This second deployment is specifically aimed at schools.
Homes and schools are far apart and it seems government has just started building roads - for the most part it’s gravel road.

Many of the schools consist of two or three one-story buildings, with about four or five classrooms in each building. The furniture is basic - a few desks and chairs. Some schools have little or very few books and often food is provided to children through feeding schemes.

Principal of Mayaluka Primary School Thembeni Mathenjwa says some of the children at the school have no identity documents as many of them have one parent from Swaziland and another from South Africa. She says unfortunately the feeding schemes only provide for children with the correct documentation.

Like postcard pictures from remote areas in Northern Africa or Asia - throughout the area women and children travel long distances carrying buckets of water from boreholes in wheelbarrows - donkeys can be found everywhere also carrying water vessels.

There’s gratitude from teachers and pupils about the group that’s brought these filters – but one can tell that there are other problems here. For one, not only is clean water a scarcity, but water itself is rare.

Guillermo Guzman, founder and CEO of the Wishing Well Foundation, gave some insight during long conversations around the campfire and on the road as we travelled. He highlighted the fact that children’s immune systems are still quite fragile and haven’t built up a strong defence against the germs and bacteria often found in water from rain tanks and boreholes. This has led to the death of thousands of children every year all over the world.

According to the World Health Organization, 361,000 children under the age of 5 die due to diarrhoea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.

I asked Mark Bertler - who heads the fundraising and corporate relations for the foundation - if the situation was disheartening: that filters don’t solve all the problems, and that there’s a much larger injustice here in the way people are living. He replies that it provides greater motivation to do more and to expand the project and to make a difference - however small - where possible.

Guzman also notes the often tiring and long process of going through government to run an expedition such as this one. He says while it’s something to consider, often dealing with government means considering who might profit from the deal, often diluting the purpose of the mission and dragging out the process.

The foundation plans on making this an annual trip. From what they’ve seen from this expedition, members says it’s about returning to the drawing board to expand the project.