Thirsty days ahead: Day Zero imminent for Nelson Mandela Bay

Day Zero is fast approaching in Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan municipality — just six days remain until the Impofu Dam runs dry and 13 days until the Churchill Dam is empty.

This will leave about 40% of the drought-stricken metro without water or battling meagre supplies of the resource. The list of areas that Day Zero will affect runs to more than 100 suburbs and townships in the western half of the metro, according to the municipality’s online portal www.baywatersavers.co.za. Combined dam levels are at 12.26%. 

“It’s not just going to be ‘boom’ — every area does not have water,” said the metro’s spokesperson, Mthubanzi Mniki. “Some of the areas will start being affected first, others in about 10 days, others in 15 days and so on.”

He said procurement and the implementation of emergency schemes and interventions had intensified in recent weeks. “We’re putting plans in place already for communal taps and communal water tanks in affected areas where people can go with a bucket and ferry water to their houses. Once the taps run dry, that will be the way of life of getting water.”

On the imminent failure of the Impofu Dam, Luvuyo Bangazi, the spokesperson for the multi-sectoral joint operations crisis committee established under the national department of water and sanitation to deal with the water crisis, said: “The city is busy right now with an engineering solution using a barge system to extract water in a different location of the dam. But as things stand, that’s the number [six days until dam failure] that we’re looking at. Last week this time Impofu Dam had more water than Churchill Dam, so it’s a dynamic situation.”

‘Stick to 50 litres’

The metro is appealing to residents to work with it to turn the water crisis around and to save water by using a maximum of 50 litres a day. According to Mniki, the metro is now shifting its communications and awareness strategy to a “higher gear” to try to prevent taps running dry. 

“We want to highlight that we are no longer in a yellow zone now, we’re in a red zone. Essentially we want to put out a call to action to residents that we can’t do it alone as a city, that we have to partner in saving this city. It’s no longer a municipal issue now of who is blaming who, what should have happened, what shouldn’t have happened. It’s all hands on deck and we’re calling for that to push these dry dams a little bit further.”

Bangazi added: “If we put our heads down nothing is going to happen. The interventions are currently in place — the pumping of water from the east side to the west, the acceleration of [drilling] boreholes — but more importantly it’s also up to us and the way we use water.  We want to allow for the infrastructure schemes to come on stream. For that to happen, we need to be conserving water.”

He noted that there had been a drop in consumption from 270 million litres a day to 262 million (from 267 million on Thursday), but this is still a distance from the municipal target of 230 million litres daily.

“We need to ramp it up — more can be done. There are people syphoning municipal water into tanks in their backyards … extracting too much of the system’s water in a panic. If we all do that, then we run the risk of accelerating the worst situation.”

Day Zero could be pushed back “but it’s not going to go away. We need to allow for all the technical interventions to kick in”, Bangazi said.

Interventions

Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu has announced his department is taking over leadership of water and sanitation projects to resolve the crisis through section 63 of the Water Services Act and has appointed Amatola Water as the implementing agent. 

“The emptiness of the dams and overall water scarcity in the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan municipality is nothing short of a horror,” said Mchunu, describing the region’s seven-year drought as a clear manifestation of climate change.

Denise van Huyssteen, the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber, said  labelling the water shortage as a drought “is not accurate” because it is a water management crisis. 

“While we acknowledge that the lack of rain and resultant low dam levels have been one of the factors contributing to the water crisis, there are a number of other issues that have further exacerbated the situation such as the lack of accountability and urgency from municipal leadership in dealing with water issues, budget and procurement bottlenecks, lack of investment and maintenance of infrastructure and qualified engineers no longer being employed by the municipality,” she said.

Non-revenue water losses amounted to 40% of total supply, of which 29% comprises leaks and 11% are from commercial losses, she said. 

Inefficiencies in the system

It is vital that all stakeholders “pull together” to prevent the metro from running out of water, according to Van Huyssteen. “We believe that this is an avoidable situation as the daily quota which the metro receives via the Nooitgedacht scheme is 209 million litres per day, while 81 million litres per day is lost due to leaks and 30.8 million litres per day to unauthorised consumption.”

Until recently, the metro was consuming about 285 million litres a day with about 173 million litres a day “representing actual consumption levels” and the balance representing inefficiencies in the system and infrastructure. 

While consumers must do everything possible to radically cut their water consumption levels, in tandem with this “absolute urgency needs to be deployed to reining in the extent of leaks. As a business community, we have members who are prepared to volunteer their expertise and resources to assist with targeting the reduction in leak levels,” she said.

Through the chamber’s Adopt A School initiative, businesses have taken on 46 schools and clinics to fix leaks and implement water saving and water harvesting measures.

Fixing leaks

“We are fixing leaks,” said Bangazi. “We had a meeting yesterday with the business chamber, which is committed to have their members come on board and help us … We are now finalising the modalities around that.” 

Mniki said the municipality has added 10 plumbing companies as plumbers to “deal aggressively” with water leaks and to improve turnaround times to fix them. “We had to deal with these links. We could not be communicating water reduction from residents and yet we’re losing water.”

The municipality is also intensifying law enforcement. “Under our water restrictions, we don’t allow people using hose pipes to wash cars, fill swimming pools or irrigate their gardens using municipal water. Our metro police have specialised units that focus on that now. In as much as its enforcement, it’s also about empowering residents with information and water saving tips.”

Alternative water

Van Huyssteen said that 150 million litres of wastewater a day running through the municipal sewer works is an asset that could be a key measure in replacing a large quantity of the municipal water used daily “and even help, in tandem with other

alternative water supply initiatives, to ensure that by the end of the year, the city can have a water surplus”.

Mniki said that in the medium to long term, desalination projects and borehole drilling in strategic areas would be pursued to augment water supply, while recycled water was being offered to affected businesses.

“Part of why we’re praying for rain is because we know we can do all the infrastructural work, all the communication work, but if rain doesn’t come at our catchment areas and they’re as far as 100km away, this thing will stretch for longer. The only thing we can do is just manage and mitigate the effects of it as much as we can and push it back a bit.”

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