‘Day Zero’: The South African town of Gkeberha is counting down the days until its faucets run dry

It’s a bumpy road that winds between crowded slums and state-funded beige houses, making balancing containers filled with 70 liters of water difficult upon return.

“Home seems far away when you load 70 kilograms of water into a wheelbarrow,” said the 49-year-old resident of the poor South African town of Kwanobule.

Right now, most of the city is counting down to “Day Zero,” the day when all the faucets run dry, when no significant amount of water can be drawn. That’s about two weeks from now unless the authorities seriously speed up their response.

The wider Eastern Cape in South Africa has suffered severe multi-year drought from 2015 to 2020, which devastated the local economy, especially its agricultural sector. He had just one letter delay before the drought hit again in late 2021.

Like many of the world’s most severe natural resource crises, severe water scarcity here is a combination of poor management and distorting weather patterns caused by anthropogenic climate change.

Morris Malambile says pushing a wheelbarrow full of water containers every day is

On top of that, thousands of leaks throughout the water supply mean that much of the water that comes from dams may never reach homes. Poor maintenance, such as a faulty water pump, only made matters worse.

This has left Malambile, who lives with his sister and her four children, no choice but to drive his car around town every single day for the past three months. Without this daily ritual, he and his family would have no drinking water at all.

“People who don’t live here have no idea what it’s like to wake up in the morning and the first thing you think about is water,” Malambile said. His family has enough containers to hold 150 liters of water, but every day he fills up about half that amount, and the rest is still used at home.

“Tomorrow these are empty and I have to bring them again,” he said. “It’s my routine, every day, and it’s exhausting.”

Countdown to day zero

Prospects for significant rain to help replenish reservoirs look bleak, and if things continue as they are now, about 40% of the larger city of Gkeberha will be left without running water at all.

The Eastern Cape relies on weather systems known as “cutoffs”. Slow moving weather systems can cause more than 50 millimeters (about 2 inches) of rain in 24 hours, followed by days of constant wet weather. The problem is that there was simply no such rain.

The next few months are also not encouraging. In its seasonal climate forecast, the South African Weather Service predicts below normal rainfall.

This is not the latest trend. For nearly a decade, the catchment areas of the main Nelson Mandela Bay dams have experienced below-average rainfall. The water level has slowly declined to the point where the four dams are at a combined level of less than 12% of their normal capacity. Less than 2% of the remaining water supply can actually be used, city officials say.

Fresh in the minds of locals is the 2018 Cape Town water crisis, which was also fueled by a previous severe drought, as well as management issues. Residents of the city stood in queues every day for 50 liters of water according to an individual diet, fearing the onset of a zero day. He never really got to that point, but he was dangerously close. Strict rationing has allowed the city to halve its water consumption and prevent the worst.

And with no heavy rains expected, Nelson Mandela Bay officials are so concerned about their zero day that they are asking residents to drastically reduce their water use. They simply don’t have a choice, said the municipality’s water manager, Joseph Tsatsire.

“While it’s difficult to keep track of how much each person is consuming, we hope to get the message across that it’s critical that everyone cut down to 50 liters per person per day,” he said.

A sign urging residents to limit water use in the suburb of Geberhi.
In comparison, the average American uses more than seven times that amount, at the rate of 82 gallons (372 liters) per day.

While some parts of the city will likely never feel the full impact of a potential zero day, various measures are under development to help residents in so-called “red zones” where their taps inevitably run dry.

Earlier this month, South Africa’s national government sent a high-profile delegation to Nelson Mandela Bay to take charge of the crisis and implement emergency strategies to stretch the last of the city’s dwindling supplies.

Leak detection and repairs have been in the spotlight while plans are being made to remove “dead storage water” from under the current supply dam levels. Wells have been drilled in some places to extract groundwater.

Some measures, including fixing leaks and delivering water by truck, mean those who have lost water at home have a trickle coming out of the taps at night. But this is not enough, and the authorities are looking for larger and longer-term solutions to the problem, which is only worsening is predicted the more the earth warms up.
Workers build a water collection point in the suburb of Walmer Geberha.
South Africa is naturally drought prone, but the perennial droughts that cause such suffering and destruction are becoming more and more frequent.

A desalination plant to purify ocean water for public consumption is under study, although such projects require months of planning, are costly, and often contribute to a further climate crisis when powered by fossil fuels.

Residents of Kwanobule look to the future with anxiety, wondering when the crisis will end.

There, at a communal faucet, 25-year-old Babalva Manyube fills her containers with water, while her one-year-old daughter waits in her car.

“Flushing toilets, cooking, cleaning are the problems we all face when there is no water in the taps,” she said. “But raising a child and worrying about water is a different story. And when will it end? Nobody can tell us.”

Home adaptation

In Kwanobul, public housing is for people with little or no income. Unemployment is rampant and crime is steadily rising. The streets are filled with people rushing for money. Old shipping containers work like makeshift barbershops.

On the other side of the subway is Kamma Heights, a green new suburb perched on a hill with beautiful panoramic views of the city. It is punctuated by several newly built luxury homes and residents can often be seen sitting on their balconies enjoying the last rays of the sun before the sun dips below the horizon.

Some residents of Kamma Heights are wealthy enough to provide a supply of water. Rhett Syman, 46, breathes a sigh of relief every time it rains and he hears water flowing into the tanks he has installed around his house over the past couple of years.

His plan to save money on water in the long run proved to be an invaluable investment in his family’s water supply.

Saayman has a storage capacity of 18,500 liters. Water for general domestic use, such as bathrooms, passes through a 5 micron particulate filter and a carbon filter, while water for drinking and cooking passes through a reverse osmosis filter.

Rhett Syman stands next to one of his water tanks at his home in Kamma Heights.

“We still rely on municipal water from time to time when we don’t have enough rain, but it can be two or three times a year, and usually only for a few days at a time,” he said. “We last used city water in February and we’ve had enough rain since then to keep us going.”

He added: “Looking at how things are going in the city, it’s definitely nice to know that we have clean drinking water and enough to flush toilets and shower. Our investment is paying off.”

Residents in many parts of the bay are being asked to reduce their water use so that water can be supplied through standpipes – temporary pipes located at strategic locations so that water can be diverted to the areas most in need.

This means that some of the more affluent areas of the city, such as Kama Heights, could see their water supply drastically reduced and they too would have to queue up at utility taps, as they do in Kwanobul.

Looking ahead, local weather services have painted an alarming picture of the coming months, warning that the issue has been left unresolved for so long that it may not be possible to resolve it.

“We have been warning city officials about this for years,” said Garth Sampson, Nelson Mandela Bay spokesman for the South African Weather Service. “Whether you want to blame politicians and officials for mismanagement or the public for not saving water, it doesn’t matter anymore. Pointing a finger won’t help anyone. The bottom line is that we are in a crisis and there is little we can do. more. ”

Water drips from a faucet at a water collection point in the suburb of Walmer Geberha, South Africa.  This is one of the many collection sites created in the city.

In the drainage basins supplying Nelson Mandela Bay, it takes about 50 millimeters of rain per day to have any significant impact on the level of the dam, Sampson said.

“Looking at the statistics over the past few years, our best chance of seeing 50mm events is likely to be in August. If we don’t see significant rainfall by September, then our next best chance is not until March next year, as far as we’re concerned,” he said.

“The only way this water crisis will end is with a flood. But fortunately or unfortunately – depending on who you ask – there are no forecasts suggesting rain of this magnitude anytime soon.”