Nearly half the four million people who live in Mpumalanga have been warned not to use their tap water – yes, tap water – without sterilising it first.
Mpumalanga is, officially, the worst in the country when it comes to its water management, scoring just 60.9% in the most recent Blue Drop Report.
And the situation may be worse when the 2013 report is released in May because at a least a dozen raw sewage spills were reported across the region between October 2012 and January 2014.
In his State of the Province Address last Friday, Premier David Mabuza admitted that the service delivery protests that have plagued Mpumalanga over the past five years have been fuelled mainly by concerns over water.
“Of the many service delivery challenges experienced by our municipalities, access to water tops the list,” he said.
But it turns out that the provision of tap water is no guarantee of access to safe water.
Eighty-five percent of Mpumalanga’s population has access to piped water, yet diarrhoea remains the second leading cause of death amongst children under five, after acute respiratory infections. This is according to the Mpumalanga Department of Health and Social Development’s Annual Performance Plan for 2013/2014.
Attempts to get exact, official figures from the provincial and national health departments about outbreaks of waterborne disease in Mpumalanga were unsuccessful. Ziwaphi has, however, scoured news archives to start mapping the extent of outbreaks as well as other water-related information in the province.
National health spokesman Joe Maila said that while hospitals keep their own records of outbreaks, the department “lacks the technology” to consolidate the information.
The most dramatic outbreak on record, however, was between December 2008 and March 2009 when more than half the cholera cases in South Africa were reported in Mpumalanga. Of the 12 787 cases reported nationally, 6 855 cases were reported in the province. Nationally, 64 people died, nearly half of whom, or 30, were in Mpumalanga.
Residents of Standerton in the Lekwa local municipality are afraid that they are facing a looming cholera outbreak because raw sewage has flowed unchecked into their only water source – the Vaal River – for the past two-and-a-half years.
Widespread cases of diarrhoea were reported in January and independent tests by civil rights organisation AfriForum found high levels of E-coli from human waste in the tap water.
“National standards require that there be no more than 1000 units of E-coli per 100ml of water, but in Standerton we found one million units per 100ml. This is way above the national standards and presents the potential for a cholera outbreak. We presented our findings to the municipality and we will monitor the situation going forward,” said Julius Kleynhans, AfriForum’s head of environmental affairs.
Afriforum is liaising with relevant departments and organisations to restore a clean water supply and plans to press criminal charges against officials accused of misspending funds earmarked for the crisis.
The diarrhoea outbreak was so severe that the town’s biggest pharmacy ran out of anti-diarrhoea and rehydration medicines in January.
“In January, our clinic treated over 500 children for diarrhoea, which was caused by the tap water. At least 74 of these cases were severe. It was the first time in years that our pharmacy ran out of Gastropect Suspension and Scripto-Lyte in a single month,” said Phillip Scheepers, owner of Link Pharmacy.
He said some children developed ringworm.
“We’ve advised parents to find alternatives to tap water. It’s very unfortunate that residents have to spend money they don’t have on bottled water and medication for diseases caused by municipal tap water.”
Johannes van der Wath, chairman of the main opposition party in the municipality, the Democratic Alliance, blames the town and province’s water problems on cronyism.
“How can you give a school teacher the responsibility of cleaning municipal water? Cadre deployment needs to stop,” said Van der Wath, adding that he hasn’t had a decent shower in six months because the water smells “like sh*t or raw fish sometimes”.
The DA has been lobbying municipalities across the province to address collapsing water services. The party has identified at least a dozen outbreaks between 2012 and 2014. The party has laid criminal charges in terms of the National Water Act against the Thaba Chweu, Govan Mbeki and Victor Khanye local municipalities.
The South African Human Rights Commission is also expected to release a report this month regarding water quality issues in Thaba Chweu, Govan Mbeki, and Emalahleni local municipalities.
Spokesman for the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs, Mava Scott, said water samples were collected on February 13 in Standerton for both chemical and bacteriological testing.
The results were presented to the municipality on February 21 and, according to Scott, could not confirm that tap water was to blame for the diarrhoea outbreak.
“Although the results did not confirm the outbreak of diarrhoea, there were some chemical concerns like high content of aluminium in the water,” said Scott.
According to the World Health Organisation high aluminium levels in water may be linked to diarrhoea.
Scott said the department’s engineers are currently on site helping the municipality to clean up its water sources.
“Almost 95% of the valves required for the project are on site,” he said.
Meanwhile, residents are continuing to buy in, or filter and sterilise their tap water. Some are cashing in on the crisis, like Hendrik Dippenaar, owner of the Total garage in Standerton. He sells filtered water for R1 per litre – although it cost him R40 000 to replace the filter when the turbid tap water clogged it up.