Residents in the Gamtoos River Valley are bracing for a health crisis of unprecedented proportions as – for the first time in its history – the region’s biggest supply dam is set to run dry by the end of April.
Should no decent rains fall in the catchment area in the coming weeks, the towns of Hankey and Patensie will be plunged into a health disaster, as most of their water is sourced from the Kouga Dam which dipped to an all-time low of 7.15% last week.
Rain over the weekend has seen the dam level rise to 9.3%, with further inflows expected to bring it up to 10%.
This puts the area, which falls under the Kouga Municipality, at similar risk to water-strapped Cape Town, where major dams are set to run dry – a circumstance termed “Day Zero” – in mid-April.
“When the dam dries up, there will be no water for drinking, no water for personal hygiene and no water to flush toilets. We are sitting with the reality of an epic health crisis,” said Gamtoos Irrigation Board chairman Tertius Meyer, who added that while recent rains had taken the dam level up to almost 8%, the situation remained extremely serious.
Meyer said that at this critical stage even boreholes were not a viable solution to the crisis.
“Those who do have boreholes must use what water they have wisely to make it stretch as far as possible,” he said. “Kouga Municipality also needs to manage what little water it has as conservatively as possible, although this has not been the case in the past.
“Nothing can save these communities – only substantial rain.”
While more affluent households may be able to keep the crisis somewhat at bay by purchasing drinking water shipped in from other areas, poorer communities in the two towns – which share an estimated population of 300 000 – cannot afford to buy bottled water.
“The only thing the municipality can do is to bring in water in tankers, but this is prohibitively expensive, costing an estimated R1-million a month,” said Meyer.
Meanwhile, the area’s substantial farming community will also be stripped of its main source of crop irrigation when the dam runs dry, leaving the sector – a major employer in the region – crippled. A dry Kouga Dam will lead to crop failures and possible stock deaths on farms in the area, with knock-on implications for already hard-hit consumers.
“While the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality has adhered to the restricted access imposed on them when drawing from the Kouga Dam, Kouga has continued to use water in excess. This is a luxury they no longer have,” Meyer said.
Although the dam running dry also has serious implications for Bay residents, the situation is not as dire as the crisis facing residents of Hankey and Patensie.
“The Kouga Dam is not the only source of water for the Port Elizabeth area,” Meyer said. “The metro also gets water from the Orange River, which is purified at the Nooitegedacht Water Treatment Works. Phases one and two to expand that project are already online, with phase three expected to be implemented next year.”
However, Meyer said that both the Kouga and Nelson Mandela Bay municipalities needed to cut back on water losses as a matter of urgency.
“The Gamtoos Irrigation Board has restricted its water losses to 7%,” he said. “But while the metro claims that up to 35% of supply is lost through leaks and wastage, we believe that figure to be closer to 50 to 60%. This has to be tightened up and leaks need to be fixed, while there also needs to be a lot more done to make use of grey water wherever possible.
“The reality is that we are facing a crisis worse than Cape Town’s. Day Zero, with all its implications, is looming closer and closer for Hankey and Patensie.
“All that can save us is really good rain.”