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Understanding the Eastern Cape’s Day Zero

By Dr Antony Turton

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Understanding the Eastern Cape’s Day Zero

By Dr Antony Turton

, |

5 min read

Port Elizabeth has hit Day Zero – that dreaded spectre that had Capetonians tossing and turning in their unwashed sheets a few years ago. In some parts of the city the taps have – literally – been turned off, and water is trucked in by tanker.

All this while Cape Town is revelling in full dams and continuing rainfall, but there is a distinct possibility of a Day Zero in Gauteng too. And, before you breathe too big a sigh of relief that you don’t live in PE, nowhere in South Africa is immune – not even the lovely green Garden Route. So, perhaps we can learn something from how we as a nation got to this state – and PE is a great case study in the importance of proper management
– at national level, provincial level, city level and even estate level. It’s a sad, but interesting, story.

Once upon a time

A long time ago, in the Cape Colony in 1875, JC Brown published Hydrology of South Africa; or Details of the Former Hydrographic Conditions of the Cape of Good Hope and causes of its Present Aridity, with Suggestions of Appropriate Remedies for this Aridity – a somewhat wordy title, but it says it all. Brown described the extreme aridity of the Karoo, and postulated that the absence of water limited the development potential of the colony.

It was read with great interest by the prolific road engineer Thomas Bain, who had seen prosperous settlements on the banks of the Orange River where furrows were dug from the river to irrigate the fields. This gave him an idea, and he started to draw the first maps of what later became the foundation of South Africa’s industrialisation. As well as suggesting an irrigation scheme downstream from Upington, Bain mapped a canal to bring water from the Orange River to Port Elizabeth (PE) – an ambitious plan that would not see fruition for nearly 100 years, but that was to significantly alter the South African industrial, economic and political landscape.

Brave new world

After South Africa became a republic, and left the British Commonwealth, the then ruling National Party realised that they would have to transform the existing extractive economy, based on the export of agricultural and mining raw materials, to an industrialised economy. To this end, the government instituted the Commission of Enquiry into Water Matters, which became the blueprint for the industrial future of South Africa as a sovereign state in the post-colonial era. What the commission showed was that, as a dry country, water was a major constraint on development in many parts of the country. This, obviously, included Johannesburg, so it’s not surprising that Jozi is lining up for its Day Zero as well, but – for the moment – let’s concentrate on PE.

In the 1960s, the one thing the Eastern Cape did have was people – lots of them – but both agriculture and industry were severely water-constrained, so it was time for Thomas Bain’s plan to become a reality. The limitation to Bain’s original vision was the absence of industrial capacity, but, a century later, South Africa had become a mining giant with significant technological expertise – specifically in the building of shafts and tunnels.

The Commission of Enquiry thus became the grand vision on which an industrial future could be built. Port Elizabeth became the beneficiary of the first interbasin transfer in South Africa – and one of the first in the world. The scheme centred around what was then called the HF Verwoerd Dam (now the Gariep Dam). From the Gariep Dam, Orange River water is transferred through an 82-kilometre-long tunnel to the Great Fish River, from where it would be transferred again through a 13-kilometre tunnel to the Little Fish River. From the Little Fish, Orange River water that had come all the way from Lesotho is carried by a canal into the Schoemans River and into the Darlington Dam, from where some is released into the Sundays River to support agriculture around Addo, and some is (theoretically) transferred to the Kouga Dam through a series of canals and holding dams called the Nooitgedacht Scheme. And from the Kouga Dam to the homes, factories and businesses of Port Elizabeth. It was thanks to all this ‘heroic engineering’ that the motor manufacturing industry of the Eastern Cape developed into the money spinner it was, and that PE grew into the successful second-tier city it is.

PE’s water supply

Port Elizabeth gets its water from five main dams – from biggest to smallest the Kouga Dam (previously the Paul Sauer Dam), the Impofu Dam, the Krom River Dam (previously the Churchill Dam), the Groendal Dam, and the Loerie Dam. The average dam level is about 17% but that involves some very clever ‘accounting’ and does not tell the full story. The second biggest dam, Impofu Dam, is at about 16%, a level at which it can’t supply water, so, until the municipality implements technical measures to access that water, it can be considered empty; the biggest – Kouga Dam – is sitting at about 6.5%, so that will soon be effectively empty too. The three smaller dams are fuller, averaging over 40%. That sounds good but, when all the dams are full, these three together account for just over a third of the city’s water supply, with two-thirds coming from – yup – Kouga and Impofu.

But, hang on – what about all that lovely Orange River water that should be flowing into Kouga Dam through a series of interbasin transfers? Small problem there. In 2017 when Cape Town residents were quiddling in their boots at the thought of Day Zero, one of the canals in the Nooitgedacht Scheme collapsed – it was more than 40 years old by then, and probably due for a bit of maintenance. So the canal bringing Orange River water to the city broke three years ago, and – well, uhm – it hasn’t been repaired.

So what went wrong?

The problem is threefold:

  • Firstly, PE is situated in a dry area that is naturally prone to periodic droughts, so lean years are to be expected. That’s why all that heroic engineering was done in the first place.
  • But, as all estate managers and developers know, you can plan the best plan, and build the best infrastructure but, if you don’t maintain it properly, it will let you down one day. And that’s the crux of it, really. The Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality has, for years, been fraught with conflict, corruption and incompetence, so maintenance, upgrading and replacement of infrastructure took a back seat. But there is more to it than that.

The municipality has failed to implement demand-side management so, even though the city has cut off some areas, citizens still use ‘too much’ water. At the height of its water crisis, Cape Town (with a population of 4.4 million) was using about 500 megalitres of water per day, while PE (with a population of 1.1 million) is using about 300. Actually, that may be unfair, as it is hard to say how much of the ‘usage’ is due to unfixed leaks, and how much to actual usage. According to a News 24 report, the NMB Municipality admitted on 6 August that it had ‘a repair backlog of 936 leaks’. But it is convenient and politically expedient to blame the citizenry rather than to acknowledge incompetence –or worse!

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