Day Zero: This city is counting down the days until its taps run dry


Every day, Maurice Mallambel picks up his wheelbarrow full of empty plastic containers and pushes it from his home to the nearest running faucet. It’s a lot further than the usual walk to the kitchen sink – just under a mile – but it’s not the distance that bothers him.

It’s the bumpy road – running between tightly packed cottage dwellings and beige public-finance homes – that makes balancing containers filled with 70 liters of water on their return a pain.

“Home feels far away when you push 70 kilograms of water in a wheelbarrow,” said a 49-year-old resident from the poor town of Kwanopuhle in South Africa.

The taps dried up in parts of Cuanopolla in March, and since then, thousands of residents rely on a single common tap to supply their homes with drinking water. The town is just one of many in the Nelson Mandela Bay area of ​​Jakiberha that rely on a system of four dams that have been drying steadily for months. There was not enough heavy rain to replenish it.

A week ago, one of the dams was shut down because its levels were too low to actually extract any water – its pipes were just sucking up mud. Another is just days away from emptying it.

Now most parts of the city are counting down to “Day Zero,” the day when all the taps run dry, when not much water can be extracted. That’s in about two weeks, unless the authorities seriously speed up their response.

The broader Eastern Cape region of South Africa has suffered severely Multi-year drought between 2015 and 2020Which led to the destruction of the local economy, especially its agricultural sector. It had a short lead time before returning to drought in late 2021.

Like many of the world’s worst natural resource crises, the acute water shortage here is a combination of mismanagement and devious weather patterns caused by man-made climate change.

It's normal to push a wheelbarrow full of water bowls every day, says Maurice Mallambel

Furthermore, thousands of leaks throughout the water system mean that much of the water that exits dams may not actually reach homes. Poor maintenance, such as a failure of a pump for the main water supply, aggravated the situation.

This has left Malambil – who lives with his sister and her four children – with no choice but to drive his wheelbarrow through town every day for the past three months. Without this daily ritual, he and his family would never have safe water to drink.

“People who don’t live here have no idea what it means to get up in the morning, and the first thing on your mind is water,” Mallambel said. His family has enough jerrycans to hold 150 liters of water, but he fills up half of that every day while the rest is still used at home.

Tomorrow, he said, “these are empty, and I must bring them back again.” “It’s my routine, every day, it’s tiring.”

The prospects for significant rain to help resupply the reservoirs here look bleak, and if things continue as they are, about 40% of the wider city of Gqeberha will be left with no running water at all.

The Eastern Cape depends on weather systems known as “low hiatus”. Slow-moving weather systems can produce more than 50 mm (about 2 inches) of rain in 24 hours, followed by days of continuous wet weather. The problem is that this kind of rain never came.

Nor do the next several months paint a promising picture. In its seasonal weather forecast, the South African Weather Service is predicting lower than normal precipitation.

This is not a recent trend. For nearly a decade, the catchment areas of the major supply dams of Nelson Mandela Bay have been exposed to less rainfall. Water levels have slowly dwindled to the point that the four dams are sitting at a total level of less than 12% of their natural capacity. According to city officials, less than 2% of the remaining water supply is actually usable.

People here are still fresh in Cape Town’s water crisis of 2018, which was also caused by previous severe drought as well as management problems. The townspeople were queuing to get 50 liters of water per day, fearing it would reach zero day. It never actually got to that point, but it got dangerously close. Strict rationing has enabled the city to halve its water use and avoid the worst.

With no heavy rain expected, Nelson Mandela Bay officials are deeply concerned about their zero-day, and are asking residents to significantly reduce their water use. They simply have no other choice, said Josef Tsatsir, the municipality’s water distribution manager.

“While it is difficult to monitor how much each person is using, we hope to get the message across that it is critical for everyone to reduce consumption to 50 liters per person per day,” he said.

A sign urging residents to restrict their water use on the outskirts of Qubeirha.

To put that into perspective, average Americans use it more than seven times that amount, 82 gallons (372 liters) per day.

While parts of the city will never feel the full impact of a possible zero-day, various interventions are in the pipeline to help residents in so-called “red zones” where their taps inevitably run dry.

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

Emphasis is placed on leak detection and repair, while plans are made to extract “dead stored water” from below existing levels of supply dams. Wells have been drilled in some locations to extract groundwater.

Some interventions — including patching leaks and trucking water — mean that some of those who lost their water supply at home are starting to have few taps left at night. But this is not enough and the authorities are looking for bigger and longer-term solutions to a problem It is expected to worsen The higher the Earth’s temperature.

Workers build a water collection point in the Walmer suburb of Gqeberha.

South Africa is naturally prone to drought, but it is the kind of multi-year drought that causes such misery and turmoil became more frequent.

A desalination plant – to purify ocean water for public consumption – is being explored, although such projects require months of planning, are expensive and often contribute even more to the climate crisis, when they are powered by fossil fuels.

People in Cuanopolé are worried about the future, wondering when the crisis will end.

At the communal faucet there, 25-year-old Papaloa Manyop fills her containers with water while her one-year-old daughter waits in her car.

“Cleaning the toilets, cooking, cleaning – these 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 an entirely different story. And when will it end? No one can tell us.”

In Cuanopole, public housing is for people with limited or no income. Unemployment is rampant and crime is on a steady rise. The streets are filled with people struggling for money. Old shipping containers serve as makeshift barbershops.

Across from the metro is Kama Heights, a new leafy suburb perched on a hill with beautiful, uninterrupted views of the city. It is dotted with many newly built stately homes, and residents can often be seen sitting on their balconies, soaking up the last few rays of sun before the sun sinks behind the horizon.

Some residents of the Kama highlands are wealthy enough to secure a backup water supply. Rhett Seaman, 46, breathes a sigh of relief every time it rains and hears water flow into the tanks he’s built around his house for the past two years.

His plan to save money on water in the long term turned out to be an invaluable investment in securing his family’s water supply.

Siman has a storage capacity of 18,500 liters. Water for general household use, such as bathrooms, is run through a 5 micron particulate filter and carbon block filter, while drinking and cooking water goes through a reverse osmosis filter.

Rhett Seaman stands by one of his many water tanks in his home in Kama Heights.

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

He added, “Given the way things are going around the city, it is certainly comforting to know that we have clean and enough drinking water to wash restrooms and showers. Our investment is paying off.”

Residents in many parts of the Gulf region are being asked to reduce their consumption so that water can be run through existing pipes – temporary pipes strategically placed so that water can be diverted in areas of greatest need.

This means that some of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, such as Kama Heights, could see their water supply significantly reduced, and they would also have to line up at community taps, just as those in Kwanobuhle do.

Looking ahead, local meteorological authorities have painted a worrying picture for the coming months, with some warning that the problem has been left to fester for so long, that reversing it may be impossible.

“City officials have been warning about this for years,” said Garth Sampson, a spokesperson for the South African Meteorological Service in Nelson Mandela Bay. “Whether you want to blame politicians and officials for mismanagement, or blame the public for not providing water, it no longer matters. Pointing fingers is not going to help anyone. The bottom line is that we are in a crisis and there is not much we can do anymore.”

Water drips from a tap at a water collection point in the suburb of Walmer in Gqeberha, South Africa.  It is one of the many gathering areas erected in the city.

According to Sampson, the catchment areas that supply Nelson Mandela Bay need about 50 mm of rain in a 24-hour period for there to be any significant impact on dam levels.

“Looking at the stats over the past several years, our best chance of witnessing 50mm events will likely be in August. If we don’t see any heavy rain by September, our best chance will be around March next year, which is exciting to worry.

The only way to end this water crisis is by flooding. But fortunately, or unfortunately – depending on who you ask – there are no forecasts of rain of this magnitude any time soon.”