SAHRC steps in after eThekwini residents cry foul over water outages

City says vandalism, rapid urbanisation, adverse weather to blame for dry taps

26 January 2024 - 12:22
Angry residents burned debris and tyres at the intersection of Parkgate and Ottawa in protest against weeks of going without water. The SAHRC is meeting with city officials about the issues. File photo.
Image: Reaction Unit SA Angry residents burned debris and tyres at the intersection of Parkgate and Ottawa in protest against weeks of going without water. The SAHRC is meeting with city officials about the issues. File photo.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has taken a “proactive” role in monitoring water issues in eThekwini after a week of community protests about outages.

The city’s head of water and sanitation, Ednick Msweli, said on Thursday the SAHRC convened a meeting with the municipality and civic organisations monitoring the water challenges where it was decided the commission would oversee the process of responding to the issues.

“The resolution from that meeting is that there will be war room meetings at least twice a week and the SAHRC will be there to effectively monitor all the parties, including the city, to ensure we're doing what we're supposed to be doing. They are playing a proactive role,” he said.

“They did indicate they reserve their right to take further action if they have to, but at the moment they’re saying ‘sort out the problem and we will monitor you’.”

The SAHRC intervention follows prolonged water outages, especially in the northern and southern parts of the city, after heavy rainfall on January 13.

Last weekend, DA leader John Steenhuisen announced his party would lodge a complaint with the SAHRC against the city for failing in its constitutional responsibility to provide access to clean water.

Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda said he will meet SAHRC commissioners on Friday but denied the meeting is due to pressure from the DA or any other party.

“They’ve been around. They are not only enquiring because of the floods. Our department has been attending meetings on what constitutes our responses to challenges communities are faced with. They are doing their work and I think they are doing a very good job,” he said.

He said the commission should be allowed to do its job and cautioned political parties against using the chapter 9 institution or issues that require solutions to play political games.

“Even in the room we gave a directive that no politician must participate. Let’s allow the administration to do their job because when we get there as politicians we will start throwing our own political games in the matter that doesn’t require politicking.”

Kaunda said most of the city’s more than 4-million residents were receiving water. However, a combination of rapid urbanisation, ageing infrastructure and vandalism, along with inclement weather conditions, had exerted pressure on existing infrastructure.

He said only the central region of the city has 100% water supply while the inner west region has 95%.

We’re working round the clock to ensure we’re moving people back to conventional water supply as opposed to using tankers
Musa Mbhele, eThekwini city manager

The outer west region is making do with 75% water supply, with areas like KwaXimba, Shongweni, Ngonyameni and Hammarsdale without a supply.

The south and north regions are both operating at 80%, with KwaMakhutha, Adams Mission and Folweni in the south and Inanda, Ntuzuma, KwaMashu, Verulam, Parkgate and Phoenix, in the north, without water.

“The water supply in the affected areas can be attributed to, among other things, the damage caused by the recent floods, ageing infrastructure and vandalism. With regard to the issue of vandalism, we again plead with communities to work with us to look after municipal infrastructure,” said Kaunda.

This week saw myriad community protests in the northern areas of the city, particularly in Verulam, Parkgate and Ottawa.

Kaunda said the northern aqueduct, which supplies areas such as Verulam, Tongaat and Phoenix, has not been performing optimally for the past three months, resulting in constrained input volumes into the Mount View reservoir which impacts downstream reservoirs, namely Trenance 1 and 3 reservoirs.

“Interventions are being implemented which include checking possible leaks and blockages on the 32km long trunk main. Other interventions include replacement of all air valves in the trunk main and changeover of the bulk supply,” he said.

These interventions should be completed by the second week of February.

Municipal leadership will hold a community meeting in Verulam and Phoenix on Saturday to address the issues, Kaunda said.

In the south, the city is fixing the 24km southern aqueduct which was decommissioned, as it had deteriorated to the point of being prone to major leaks. The R1.2bn project is to be implemented 12 months after all supply chain processes are finalised, and the contractor is expected to be on site by March.

“What has also compounded water challenges in the south of Durban was the wash away of the south coast augmentation gravity pipeline during recent storms. This affected supply to all south coast areas. Repairs to the pipeline have been completed and water in most areas was restored.”

Kaunda said in northern townships such as KwaMashu and Ntuzuma, water challenges stem from the pump station that caught fire last year. It is operating at 50% capacity. He said a process to upgrade it at a cost of R35m will start in March.

“All the interventions we have outlined are short- to medium-term. The lasting solution to water challenges in the city will be the construction and commissioning of the upper Umkhomazi dam.”

In the interim, the city is using water tankers to supply affected communities, which city manager Musa Mbhele conceded was more expensive than the conventional way of water supply.

“It’s not our first choice but we have a responsibility to ensure access to water is maintained all the time. We’re working round the clock to ensure we’re moving people back to conventional water supply as opposed to using tankers.”

The city has about 165 water tankers and has been hiring about 105 more from the private sector. The council will add 100 more from tomorrow until April.

Msweli said they have had to significantly increase budget allocations because of abnormal circumstances that could not be planned or budgeted for.

“The budget for this financial year for water tankers was about R146m. By the end of December we had spent about R134m. When we made those provisions in the budget, it was planning for what is normal, such as burst pipes and water outages while fixing them — but in half a year we’ve almost depleted that because of incidents like what we’re dealing with.”