South Africans living in the Eastern Cape are counting down to “Day Zero” when the taps in the Nelson Mandela Bay area will run dry. Experts say climate change induced drought has left reservoirs almost empty, while municipal mismanagement has city authorities scrambling to plug more than 3,000 leaking water pipes.
Sixty-eight-year-old grandma of five Virginia Kima lives in KwaNobuhle, a poor township in a region named after South Africa’s greatest hero and first Black president, Nelson Mandela Bay.
But life is hard these days, she said.
“Sometimes we stay about two or three days without water,” she said. “When there’s no water we do go to other areas and fetch water.”
Kima told VOA when the taps run dry, she walks 25 minutes to a school to fill bottles.
The bay area is suffering a critical water shortage. Authorities said regional dam water storage is at about 11 percent of capacity and could be about to get a lot worse.
At the current rate of use, two major reservoirs could run out completely in a matter of days. If that happens, 40 percent of the city of Gqeberha, with a population of about a million people, would be affected.
Luvuyo Bangazi, spokesman for the government committee dealing with the shortage, told VOA that authorities are racing to prevent “Day Zero,” when they run out of water.
“With regards to the exact date of Day Zero, you know we really cannot have such a date in the calendar because there are lots of moving parts,” he said. “We are doing everything we can in our power to avoid taps running dry.”
Bangazi said there are several reasons for the low water levels – both natural and man-made.
“We haven’t had good rains for more than seven years and we’ve had a sharp increase in water consumption from across sectors, be it residential, business, or other,” he said. “So, compounding that with obviously ailing infrastructure that leads to severe water leaks … almost 25-30% of our water [is] being lost due to water leaks caused by failing infrastructure.”
More than 3,000 leaks have been reported to city authorities, who say teams are scrambling to fix them.
Bangazi said the community also needs to cut back on water consumption, which he says is 60 million liters more per day than it should be for the size of population.
Meanwhile, authorities are setting up communal water points and aid workers are drilling boreholes for water wells.
Mary Galvin, an associate professor in development studies at the University of Johannesburg, said the water shortage shows the urgent need to combat climate change.
“Reaching Day Zero is an example, or is an expression, of a climate crisis which is here to stay — with higher temperatures, greater intensity of weather events, including drought and flood. So this is yet another manifestation that we see across the country and across Africa and across the world.”
Galvin noted that there is also an issue of water inequality in South Africa.
While wealthier residents of Nelson Mandela Bay can dig their own boreholes and buy storage tanks, the poor here, like Grandma Kima, must walk to find water.
The water shortage in Nelson Mandela Bay comes just a few years after the major South African tourist city of Cape Town narrowly averted its own Day Zero.