Water crisis unfolding in Port Shepstone

While most media attention is focused on the Emfuleni Sewage crisis, other localized dramas go unnoticed. One of many such invisible events is the current water crisis unfolding in Ugu District.

Centered on Port Shepstone and serviced by a number of municipalities all falling under the Ugu District Municipality, the area is facing total collapse of the water reticulation system.

“There are many reasons for the crisis. Consistent with other localized crises, we have at the center, a dysfunctional municipality with the usual ailments like disintegrating roads, chaotic billing, ill-disciplined union activity that allows disgruntled members to break infrastructure during strike action, nepotism, corruption and general mismanagement, says water resource expert Professor Anthony Turton.

“The central problem is an antiquated water abstraction point direct from a river close to the sea. When river flows are low, such as during a drought, the estuary is no longer flushed by flood pulses of fresh water.

This creates a saline wedge that migrates upstream. Salt water then enters the pumps and from that moment things go pear-shaped very quickly.

That salt water then gets pumped into thousands of homes, corroding pipes from within, destroying geysers and playing havoc with septic tanks. This destroys homes and drives up insurance claims for those lucky enough to have such protection.

A directive was given that all sectional title schemes must provide 48 hours of on-site water storage to carry them through the regular shutdowns. Think Eskom loadshedding but only for water, explained Turton.

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The lessons here are profound. These are:

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1) Assumptions on which backup storage systems are designed must be reassessed in light of the bigger picture. A safe minimum would be closer to ten days. This poses other risks that I won’t deal with here.

2) The assumption that the municipality will be able to supply water, when their own bulk water infrastructure has failed, needs to be assessed against the growing reality of systemic failure.

3) Alternative sources of water need to be found. This opens a can of worms, because rogue vendors enter the market and run pirate operations that source water from unknown places, transport it in vessels that might be contaminated, and then charge exorbitant fees. Trading with such entities is illegal, and their flourishing presence is an empirical manifestation of the extent to which government has already lost control.

4) These rogue vendors recruit municipal workers to sabotage infrastructure in order to capture a market for their illegal trade in water.

“We have a long journey ahead of us, because there’s no indication that it’s going to get any better anytime soon. At best we can anticipate that it will get worse before it gets better,” said Turton.

The Ugu Municipality has already introduced water load shedding with water generally being unavailable at night time.