Enough hot air – it’s time for clean water

Enough hot air – it’s time for clean water

Mpumalanga is a major water catchment zone supplied by the Olifants, Vaal, Imfolozi-Pongola and Komati-Crocodile rivers. But you take a chance, drinking tap water in Ermelo. Locals won’t touch it if they can help it – but their only alternative is to pay for bottled water even though access to clean drinking water is a basic human right.

Professor Lukhele (33) is one of those who can’t afford to buy water. He’s unemployed and lives in a small settlement outside Ermelo locals call ‘Skapruzi’, where he looks after his gran, Betty Bembe, who is 94 years old.

In March, two of the walls in Betty’s house collapsed after the heavy rains. While she hopes that, with kindness, her neighbours will help her rebuild the walls, she’s forced to warm herself at the coal stove in the middle of her home, fabric sacks forming a makeshift shield from the elements.

For water, Professor visits one of five nearby pumps that supply the community of about 400 residents. Once the hand pump is set in motion, water with a grey-brown tinge spurts out. Professor needs about one 25-litre container of water per day. He carries away three of these containers a day to make sure his granny has enough water, too.

Speaking through a translator inside her home, Professor tells of an increase complaints of stomach problems over the years, which he is sure are caused by the water quality.

Residents rely on hand pumps to make sure they have water in the village of Skapruzi. The access and the quality of the water remain questionable.
Residents rely on hand pumps to make sure they have water in the village of Skapruzi. The access and the quality of the water remain questionable.

For Ermelo it’s not just an issue of water quality. As early as 2010, residents were complaining that their taps regularly ran dry. They also warned that basic infrastructure and maintenance work had not been carried out and that they were on the brink of a disaster.

In 2013, Ermelo was declared a national disaster area. Its water levels had sunk to a crisis level. In January that year, the mayor announced that levels in the Brummer and Douglas dams, responsible for the area’s water supply, were only at around 10 and 12% capacity, which would impact on supplies to at least 50 000 households in and around the town.

Earlier this year the local Msukaligwa municipality, which runs Ermelo, said its R300-million upgrade and intervention, including a R22-million water laboratory in town, had restored a reliable water supply to the town.

This upgrade may be good news for the town, but for people like Gran Betty and others in her community, who still don’t have piped water, and have to rely on whatever water their pumps spurt out, nothing has changed. They don’t know how or where to complain: According to Betty, the last time a ward councillor visited Skapruzi was five years ago, and it’s been even longer since a mobile health clinic came to their settlement.

Professor doesn’t think much will change after the 2014 elections either. The brighter day all the politicians promise – that’s for people other than himself and his granny.