Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik

Villagers in Ngqushwa in the Eastern Cape say they have marched and sent petitions to authorities but little relief has been provided to their shortage of water that has lasted about 10 years.

In the 1970s, South African student protests spurred an international divestment movement. Today, that historical moment is giving hope to those fighting climate change.

This is the story of about 138 villages scattered around Ngqushwa, which falls under the Amathole District Municipality with its headquarters in East London. Though villagers differ on when their taps ran dry, the general agreement is that there has been a water crisis in this town for the past 10 years.

And villagers in Centane, which also falls under the Amathole municipality, have also been suffering from a lack of access to clean water.

Sipho Majiya is a disabled man from Feni village near Ngqushwa town in the Eastern Cape. He has a standpipe tap in his house but it’s dry, he said. The last time it provided clean water was six years ago.

Majiya shared his struggle of getting clean water. Despite his disability, he joined a number of protests in the village to demand water – but water remains a pipe dream.

In Feni village residents are forced to drink dirty water from a river

The last protest was in August, led mostly by young people who blocked the dusty streets of the village with burning tyres. Days after the protest, Amathole District Municipality responded by supplying Feni village with one water tank.

According to Majiya, since the water tank was installed in August, the municipality only filled it twice. “They only come once a month,” he said. For elders like Majiya who live alone, the water runs out before they are able to find someone to assist them in getting water.

“This 15 000 litre water tank only lasts for a few hours here. Within three hours there’s no water. People come here with big drums; some with more than five 20-litre buckets. By the time it’s my turn, water will be finished I will have to go home with empty buckets,” he said.

“Our municipality does not seem to care,” he said.

According to Amathole District Municipality (ADM) spokesperson, Nonceba Madikizela-Vuso, this village is hard hit by illegal water connections and drought.

Even though drought has brought about a water crisis in most parts of the Eastern Cape, the dam that supplies Ngqushwa and the surrounding villages is full.

Residents said the problem is caused by old pipes that need to be changed and poor planning. Majiya said, “What the municipality told us is that when they open water to our taps, the hospital and the town suffers. It means if we have water, then the hospital and the town will be out of water.”

Majiya now relies on rainwater and when it’s not raining he hires someone with a donkey to fetch water for him from the river and for that he pays R300. “I only have my disability grant and now I have to make sure that I have money to buy water,” he said.

There are also trucks that are selling water. For a 25-litre drum they charge R15 to R20. The water from the river and from the trucks is not clean but Majiya said he has no other option but to buy from them.

Ngwekazi dam which is supposed to supply Feni village.

In a nearby village in the same ward, called Dabhan, more than 400 houses are sharing one standpipe – and it was connected by the community.
Resident Nosipho Xabangile said, “To prove that this town has water this tap is never dry. Officials often come here to close it but we know how to open it. As soon as they leave we open it for people to get water,” she said.

Xabangile showed us how to open the tap using a knife to unlock what they call a water station. For safety reasons, Xabangile said people often come at night with bakkies to fetch water.
Athini Ngxumza of Mthaphu Centre, an NGO that focuses on gender-based violence and community development, said they have knocked on many doors asking for help regarding the water crisis in Ngqushwa but without success.

“This water crisis has been happening for a very long time. During the lockdown, we wrote letters to our municipality, to Premier Oscar Mabuyane’s office, to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office and to Amathole District Municipality asking for them to intervene in this water crisis. Only the president’s office responded and promised to send someone from the local office but that did not happen. We organised a peaceful march to the N2 because no one was responding to our letters. But on that day police were quick to respond. By the time we got to the N2, police from Mthatha and Bisho were already waiting for us. Six community members were injured and three were arrested. It was only then that the municipality sent an engineer,” said Ngxumza.

She said the engineer told them that the reservoir that is used to pump water to Ngqushwa is very small and can only supply less than 100 houses a day. “That alone tells you that there’s poor planning. With the high rate of gender-based violence, women in this village are expected to walk long distances alone to fetch water that is not even clean,” she said.

Nosipho Xabangile said about 400 houses share one standpipe tap in Dabhan village.

Qhamani Tshazi, programme officer of development and local governance NGO, Afesis-corplan, said the scale of the water crisis in the province is huge. He said the water tanks the district municipality supplies are not enough. “In some villages the water tanks were not delivered; that led to people drinking dirty water that is also used by animals,” he said.
The ADM spokesperson, Madikizela-Vuso, said water is carted into the area using three municipal water trucks. She added that the Amathole district is vast and it takes time for a truck to return to the same area delivering water. There are also issues, she said, of the water trucks requiring constant repairs due to bad roads.
(This article first appeared in Elitsha)