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Sat Jun 25 14:15:58 SAST 2016

Hot as hell

Shaun Smillie, Leonie Wagner and Graeme Hosken | 07 January, 2016 00:06

Emergency services are on high alert today with record-breaking temperatures expected.

Children, the elderly and the sick are most vulnerable and have been advised to take precautions.

Today's maximum temperatures are expected to be well above 40C across large parts of the country.

On Tuesday, said the South African Weather Service, 55 highest maximum temperatures were recorded in several areas.

The highest temperature was at Augrabies Falls, where the mercury touched 48.6C.

The scorching temperatures come after five provinces were declared drought disaster zones.

So severe is the drought that farmers are looking abroad for assistance as the government urges cattle owners to scale back livestock numbers. Farmers, already crippled by months of drought, have started culling their herds.

The government has ramped up relief efforts, trucking in water to the worst-affected provinces, including KwaZulu-Natal and North West.

Water from the Katse Dam in Lesotho is being pumped into Eastern Cape to try to prevent the province being declared a disaster zone.

Water and Sanitation Ministry spokesman Mlimandlela Ndamase said the situation "is dire".

ER24 spokesman Russel Meiring said paramedics were on high alert. Ekhurhuleni Emergency Services had brought in additional fire fighters to assist with emergencies, and Tshwane Emergency Services was preparing to deal with temperatures expected to peak above 40C.

In the North West town of Swartruggens the hospital's toilets have stopped working and nurses have resorted to bringing in water.

The hospital survives on tanked water delivered by the municipality daily.

Provincial health department spokesman Tebogo Lekgethwane said: "The water we get is enough to facilitate the running of the hospital. We need to emphasise that they [staff] need to continue bringing water."

He said as the hospital was a community hospital it did not have a lot of surgeries.

World Vision director Paula Barnard said people in Limpopo were cashing in on the drought and had resorted to selling their borehole water.

"As the situation worsens we are becoming more concerned for the health and safety of children."

She said the organisation had already seen cases of diarrhoea, cholera and other water-borne diseases in KwaZulu-Natal children.

University of the Western Cape public health professor David Sanders said during a drought and hot weather the risk of diarrhoea, especially in children, increased.

"Because of limited water supplies, people limit their use of water. The biggest danger is poor hand hygiene. Diarrhoea is the main cause of death in children under the age of five."

Temperature map 0701.jpg

Free State provincial health department spokesman Mondli Mvambi, said their "greatest fear" was an outbreak of diarrhoea.

From a chair outside his antique shop in Swartruggens, Stiaan Strydom awaits the "big one". When it comes, he believes it will end four months of misery.

The big one will be heavy rain, maybe two or three days worth, that would cause the Elands River to flow and Swartruggens Dam to fill. Then the town taps will work.

"It happened two years ago, then we also didn't have water for about five months," said Strydom, "then one night the rain came and filled the dam."

The dam is little more than a puddle these days.

In the meantime Swartruggens residents line up and fill buckets and basins with water from tankers crisscrossing the town. They have done this since September.

Johan Malherbe, a climatologist at the Agricultural Research Council, said the entire southern Africa was affected, especially Lesotho and Mozambique, which were vital in supplying water to South Africa.

But he said global seasonal forecast models did not predict above- average rain for the remainder of summer with temperatures likely to remain above normal.

He said while scattered thundershowers from Friday were expected to bring short-term relief, for many farmers it was too late.

"White maize farmers in large parts of the country have been negatively affected. If some farmers have managed to plant, the continuing hot conditions could probably be detrimental to their crops."

Malherbe warned that animal grazing in the North West and Free State had been negatively affected.

"The impact is that people are culling their animals."

He warned that January's very dry conditions were usually a precursor to similar dry conditions in February.

Ndamase said government was taking steps to alleviate the affects of the drought, including increasing water-tanker supplies to affected provinces, refurbishing boreholes and speeding up the provision of relief for small-scale farmers in rural areas.

"The Rural Development Department has identified pockets of land in rural areas for cattle rotation to ensure animals have necessary food."

He said KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Free State and North West remained disaster areas.

Highlighting South Africans' lack of understanding of responsible water usage, Ndamase said in Gauteng 46% of clean drinking water supplied to households was used to water gardens.

Cape Town residents failing to comply with water restrictions imposed on January 1 risk a spot fine and imprisonment of up to six months.

"Water inspectors will monitor compliance with the restriction measures and issue spot fines where applicable," said mayoral committee member for utilities, Ernest Sonnenberg.

Johannesburg has had water restrictions in place since before the festive season.

Additional reporting Aphiwe Deklerk

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