The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Day Zero’ water crisis looms on South Africa’s eastern cape

People refill water bottles at the Newlands spring tap in Cape Town, South Africa, in February 2018. The city was then forced to reduce its water usage in face of an approaching “day zero,” the day when the city's taps would have run dry. (Charlie Shoemaker for The Washington Post/Charlie Shoemaker )
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JOHANNESBURG — Activists in Gqeberha have long warned of “day zero” — the moment when the taps in this South African coastal city will run dry. Years of severe drought and municipal mismanagement have edged Gqeberha closer and closer to that reality. Now, day zero is nearly here.

On Monday, city officials announced that one of its four major dams had reached a level so low that barges trying to extract water sucked in mud instead. Another dam is expected to fail in the next two weeks, a third in about a month. Large parts of the city could be completely without running water by the end of the month, according to local officials.

Four years ago, when Cape Town announced it was nearing its own day zero, the world turned to watch. Headlines blared that this was the first time in modern history that a major world city would be without running water. Gqeberha, by contrast, has received little international attention.

For many in South Africa, water shortages have long been a way of life. Recurring droughts in the region — which experts say are almost certainly exacerbated by climate change — combined with decaying infrastructure and poor maintenance, have led to repeated water outages in Nelson Mandela Bay, where Gqeberha is located, as well as in other cities.

Since 2015, Gqeberha, formerly known as Port Elizabeth, has been in the grip of a historic drought. But the city estimates it also loses about a third of its water supply to leaks in its piping, and has a backlog of about 3,000 unfixed leaks, according to Luvuyo Bangazi, spokesperson for the municipality’s joint operations crisis committee.

Sibusiso Khasa, a campaigner with Amnesty International in South Africa, said that when he visited Nelson Mandela Bay last week, he frequently saw water pouring from burst pipes, creating man-made lakes in roads and fields, while nearby residents complained their taps were dry.

“Yes, it’s drought disaster. And yes, climate change is a factor, but there’s also been a failure at the level of the municipality to fix these leaks,” he said.

Nelson Mandela Bay is ruled by a volatile coalition government, and city appointments related to water have turned over repeatedly in the last several years. Last year, South Africa’s national treasury labeled the city “dysfunctional,” with more than $1 billion in “irregular expenditures” between 2018 and 2020, and city officials have been implicated in several high-profile graft cases in recent years.

“You do have to concede that political challenges or instability in administrations has had an unavoidable knock-on effect on decision-making” related to water, Bangazi said.

Like many crises in South Africa, Gqeberha’s water shortage is also a study in inequality. Although rolling water outages have affected the entire area, residents of the city’s walled suburbs can offset the impact by drilling boreholes or simply buying bottled water. But much of Nelson Mandela Bay’s population lives in townships, the under-resourced, apartheid-era communities originally built around South African cities to house Black workers. These areas still have the least functional infrastructure and the most dense populations.

“There’s a water apartheid here,” says Siyabulela Mama, a member of the Water Crisis Committee, a group set up to advocate on behalf of working class communities in Nelson Mandela Bay. In his township of Zwide, he says running water only comes on intermittently. Residents are forced to rely on roaming tankers, collecting water in buckets to drink, cook, wash clothes, and bathe.

In Kwa Nobuhle, a township in the nearby town of Kariega, Ntombentle Nelana says much of her life now revolves around finding water and preserving her supply. At her house, she says water comes out of the taps only a couple hours a day, usually in the middle of the night. “If you’re asleep and you don’t hear it, you can easily miss it,” she said. The city sends out water tankers, “but you don’t know when they are coming.”

Nelana can no longer afford to water her garden, which she once relied on for spinach, peppers, and watermelons. “When you wash your body, you then keep that water for washing your clothes, and after you wash your clothes, you keep it for the toilet,” she says. But sometimes it isn’t enough, and Nelana, whose only work is a part-time job as a gardener for the municipality, has to buy bottled water from local shops. “It’s expensive for me,” she said.

Bangazi says the only time water is shut off is when maintenance is being done on the system. “There are no dry taps in Nelson Mandela Bay,” he claims.

But city officials have urged all residents to limit their daily consumption to 50 liters — roughly four toilet flushes. Doing so, they say, will help delay “day zero” by a month or more, giving local government enough time to build infrastructure to reroute water from a still-functional dam that supplies a different part of the municipality. Similar water-saving measures helped Cape Town avert catastrophe in 2018.

On Tuesday, the municipal council approved an emergency intervention plan by the national department of water and sanitation. All the while, water levels continued to dwindle.

“Government has known since 2016 that there was a drought,” Khasa says. “So why are they only intervening now, when it’s too late?”