Every day, Morris Malambile loads his wheelbarrow full of empty plastic containers and pushes it from his home to the nearest running tap. It’s much further than the usual walk to the kitchen sink — just a little under a mile away — but it’s not the distance that bothers him.
It’s the bumpy road — which runs between tightly packed shanty dwellings and beige public-funded houses — that makes balancing containers filled with 70 liters of water on his return a pain.
“Home feels far when you are pushing 70 kilograms of water in a wheelbarrow,” said the 49-year-old resident from the impoverished South African township of Kwanobuhle.
Taps ran dry in parts of Kwanobuhle in March, and since then, thousands of residents have been relying on a single communal tap to supply their households with potable water. And the township is just one of many in the affected Nelson Mandela Bay area of Gqeberha city — formerly known as Port Elizabeth — that rely on a system of four dams that have been steadily drying up for months. There hasn’t been enough heavy rain to replenish them.
A week ago, one dam was decommissioned as levels dropped too low to extract any actual water — its pipes were just sucking up mud. Another is just days away from emptying out.
Now much of the city is counting down to “Day Zero,” the day all taps run dry, when no meaningful amount of water can be extracted. That’s in around two weeks, unless authorities seriously speed up their response.
The wider Eastern Cape region of South Africa suffered a severe multi-year drought between 2015 and 2020, which devastated the local economy, particularly its agricultural sector. It had just a brief reprieve before slipping back into drought in late 2021.
Like so many of the world’s worst natural resource crises, the severe water shortage here is a combination of poor management and warping weather patterns caused by human-made climate change.
On top of that, thousands of leaks throughout the water system means that a lot of the water that does get piped out of the dams may never actually make it into homes. Poor maintenance, like a failed pump on a main water supply, has only worsened the situation.
That has left Malambile — who lives with his sister and her four children — with no choice but to walk his wheelbarrow through the township 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 on your mind is water,” Malambile said. His family has enough containers to hold 150 liters of water, but each day he fills around half that while the rest is still in use at home.
“Tomorrow, those ones are empty, and I have to bring them again,” he said. “This is my routine, every day, and it is tiring.”
Counting down to Day Zero
The prospects of meaningful rain to help resupply the reservoirs here is looking bleak, and if things keep going the way they are, around 40% of the wider city of Gqeberha will be left with no running water at all.
The Eastern Cape relies on weather systems known as “cut-off lows.” The slow-moving weather systems can produce rain in excess of 50 millimeters (around 2 inches) in 24 hours, followed by days of persistent wet weather. The problem is, that kind of rain just hasn’t been coming.
The next several months do not paint a promising picture either. In its Seasonal Climate Outlook, the South African Weather Service forecasts below-normal precipitation.
This isn’t a recent trend. For nearly a decade, the catchment areas for Nelson Mandela Bay’s main supply dams have received below average rainfall. Water levels have slowly dwindled to the point where the four dams are sitting at a combined level of less than 12% their normal capacity. According to city officials, less than 2% of the remaining water supply is actually useable.
Fresh in the minds of people here is Cape Town’s 2018 water crisis, which was also triggered by the previous, severe drought as well as management problems. The city’s residents would stand in lines for their individually rationed 50 liters of water each day, in fear of reaching Day Zero. It never actually reached that point, but it came dangerously close. Strict rationing enabled the city to halve its water use and avert the worst.
And with no heavy rain expected to come, Nelson Mandela Bay’s officials are so worried about their own Day Zero, they are asking residents to dramatically reduce their water usage. They simply have no choice, the municipality’s water distribution manager Joseph Tsatsire said.
“While it is difficult to monitor how much every person uses, we hope to bring the message across that it is crucial that everyone reduce consumption to 50 liters per person daily,” he said.
To put that in perspective, the average American uses more than seven times that amount, at 82 gallons (372 liters) a day.
While parts of the city will probably never feel the full impact of a potential Day Zero, various interventions are in the pipeline to assist residents in so-called “red zones” where their taps inevitably run dry.
Earlier this month, the South African national government sent a high-ranking delegation to Nelson Mandela Bay to take charge of the crisis and to implement emergency strategies to stretch the last of the city’s dwindling supply.
Leak detection and repairs were a focus, while plans are being made to extract “dead storage water” from below the supply dams’ current levels. Boreholes were drilled in some locations to extract ground water.
Some of the interventions — including patching up leaks and trucking in water — mean some who had lost their water supplies at home are starting to get a trickle from their taps at night. But it’s not enough and authorities are looking to bigger, longer-term solutions to a problem that is only projected to worsen the more the Earth warms.
South Africa is naturally prone to drought, but the kind of multi-year droughts that cause such misery and disruption are becoming more frequent.
A desalination plant — to purify ocean water for public consumption — is being explored, though such projects require months of planning, are expensive and often contribute further to the climate crisis, when they are powered by fossil fuels.
People in Kwanobuhle are feeling anxious about the future, wondering when the crisis will end.
At the communal tap there, 25-year-old Babalwa Manyube fills her own containers with water while her 1-year-old daughter waits in her car.
“Flushing toilets, cooking, cleaning — these are problems we all face when there is no water in the taps,” she said. “But raising a baby and having to worry about water is a whole different story. And when will it end? No one can tell us.”
Adapting at home
In Kwanobuhle, the public housing is for people with little to no income. Unemployment is rife and crime is on a steady rise. The streets are packed with residents hustling for money. Old shipping containers operate as a makeshift barbershops.
Just on the other side of the metro is Kamma Heights, a new leafy suburb situated on a hill with a beautiful, uninterrupted view 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 few rays of sunshine before the sun dips behind the horizon.
Some residents in Kamma Heights are wealthy enough to secure a backup supply of water. Rhett Saayman, 46, lets out a sigh of relief every time it rains and he hears water flow into the tanks he has erected around his house over the last couple of years.
His plan to save money on water in the long run has turned out to be an invaluable investment in securing his household’s water supply.
Saayman has a storage capacity of 18,500 liters. The water for general household use, like bathrooms, runs through a 5-micron particle filter and a carbon block filter, while drinking and cooking water goes through a reverse osmosis filter.
“We do still rely on municipal water from time to time when we haven’t had enough rain, but that might be two or three times a year, and normally only for a few days at a time,” he said. “The last time we used municipal water was in February, and since then we’ve had sufficient rain to sustain us.”
He added, “Looking at the way things are heading around the city it’s definitely a relief to know we have clean drinking water and enough to flush our toilets and take a shower. Our investment is paying off.”
Residents in many parts of the bay area are being asked to reduce their consumption so that water can be run through stand pipes – temporary pipes placed in strategic locations so that water can be diverted areas most in need.
This means some of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, like Kama Heights, could see huge drop in their water supplies, and they too will have to line up at communal taps, just as those in Kwanobuhle are doing.
Looking ahead, local weather authorities have painted a worrying picture of the months to come, with some warning that the problem had been left to fester for so long, reversing it may be impossible.
“We have been warning the city officials about this for years,” said Garth Sampson, spokesperson for the South African Weather Service in Nelson Mandela Bay. “Whether you want to blame politicians and officials for mismanagement, or the public for not conserving water, it does not matter anymore. Pointing fingers will help no one. The bottom line is we are in a crisis and there is very little we can do anymore.”
According to Sampson, the catchment areas supplying Nelson Mandela Bay need about 50 millimeters of rain in a 24-hour period for there to be any significant impact on the dam levels.
“Looking at the statistics over the last several years, our best chance of seeing 50-millimiter events will probably be in August. If we don’t see any significant rainfall by September, then our next best chance is only around March next year, which is concerning,” he said.
“The only way this water crisis is coming to an end it with a flood. But fortunately, or unfortunately — depending on who you ask — there are no forecasts suggesting rain of that magnitude anytime soon.”