Bucket baths for Witbank hospital patients amid water and electricity crisis

23 February 2017 - 13:11 By Naledi Shange

The water and electricity situation in Emalahleni is so bad patients in a wing of the Witbank Provincial Hospital have to wash in rainwater collected in buckets by nurses.

Water began trickling through the pipes of the hospital on Wednesday night after Eskom announced a temporary reprieve to scheduled power cuts‚ allowing the municipality to pump and purify water.

But the problems in the city have existed for years and a quick fix is unlikely.

One nurse said she wished the hospital had put contingency plans in place.

“While we understand this is a municipal problem and not the hospital's‚ we should be able to improvise. There is one Jojo tank but it is not working‚” she said‚ speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Municipal manager Theo van Vuuren told Times Media earlier this week that water tanks had been deployed to the hospital.

But this was seemingly not the case.

“I haven’t seen a water tank here‚” the nurse said.

Instead‚ scheduled surgeries were being delayed and patients were being turned away.

“There was also a doctor from Pretoria who was here to do surgeries but he turned back because there is no water.”

The stench in some parts of the hospital‚ particularly the toilets‚ was unbearable.

As patients struggled to wash their hands‚ bottles of hand sanitising liquid were being placed in the bathrooms‚ another nurse told Times Media.

The hospital management was asked about the situation on Wednesday‚ but no response had been received by Thursday morning.

The Hospital Association of South Africa repeated its call for authorities to actively and urgently seek ways to resolve the situation "that clearly now may affect healthcare delivery in Emalahleni and the rest of Mpumalanga". "Thus far‚ private hospitals have maintained services to patients and consumers through their extensive power back-up systems that ensure all services are available. However‚ the emerging water crisis adds a dimension that demands the authorities take immediate and appropriate action‚" the association said.

The water disruptions in Emalahleni began last week after a 900mm pipe which supplies water to the purifier burst at the weekend.

It needed to be manufactured from scratch.

Van Vuuren had told Times Media they had done all they could to speed up the process. But even if the pipe were to be fixed soon‚ their power disruption had caused delays to the water purification system.

Meanwhile‚ business owners have seen a gap in Witbank’s clean water supply.

Thabo Dzimbili started selling purified water several years ago.

"Water being a basic need‚ it was no-brainer that it will be good to provide such a service to the surrounding community‚” he said.

But as taps run dry‚ his business begins to suffer.

“If we do not have water to purify we do not have water to sell. When the water is turned off‚ demand from consumers rises and that drains our reserves faster than normal‚” Dzimbili said.

Times Media spoke to a resident spotted carrying bottles‚ on her way to a water distributor.

“We are used to this‚” said Palesa Mohlala‚ referring to her daily walk to purchase water.

“We don’t earn much but we know we have to have a budget for water each day.

“We haven’t drunk tap water in years in my home. You will remember that some years ago‚ people started complaining about worms and mud in our water so we don’t want to take those chances‚” she said.

But Van Vuuren insists Witbank tap water is safe to drink and has been so for a while.

Some residents have had small water purifiers installed in their own homes. Others have looked for other options.

“At least yesterday the rain provided me with water from the rain gutter outside and my family could bath‚ but today‚ there hasn’t been that much rain and I still need to cook‚” Ntombifuthi Moname wrote on her Facebook page on Tuesday evening.

Schools have also been affected with some sending children home early.

“We cannot function without water at the school. We can’t keep the children here knowing very well we can’t provide them with water to drink‚ or at least clean toilets‚” said a primary school teacher.

Spokesperson for the Mpumalanga education department‚ Jasper Zwane‚ said they were investigating. Naritha Naidu‚ Democratic Alliance corporate leader in Emalahleni‚said the issues in Witbank stemmed from mismanagement of funds.

“We have had millions in unauthorised and irregular expenditure‚” said Naidu.

“When Van Vuuren came in 2013‚ we were sitting at a debt of R250 million. We have now taken that figure to a billion‚” she said.

But when exactly will the issues of Witbank be resolved?

“It is difficult to say‚” said Van Vuuren. If businesses and residents settled their debt with municipalities‚ the situation could improve‚ he said.