Drought-beset South African city taps aquifer, shirks long-term solutions: Critics

Drought-beset South African city taps aquifer, shirks long-term solutions: Critics

  • A major coastal city located in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province is facing a total water cutoff for about 500,000 residents, almost half its population, following a prolonged drought.
  • Disaster relief hydrologists have begun drilling boreholes to access groundwater so that hospitals and schools can stay open during the emergency in Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality.
  • But critics say the city administration has failed to develop a long-term plan to support water harvesting from intermittent rains and construction of desalination plants.
  • They also point out that overreliance on boreholes drilled near the sea could lead to saline water intrusion into the aquifer, contaminating groundwater and rendering borehole water undrinkable.

A drought-stricken South African coastal metropolis, facing a likely large-scale shutdown of its municipal water supply this month or next, has resorted to setting up boreholes to provide groundwater to large public hospitals and schools. But this short-term emergency course of action comes with serious long-term risks, say water experts and advocates. And better, more sustainable long-term solutions could be found.

The Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality, located in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province and covering 1,959 square kilometers (756 square miles), is home to 1.28 million people who mostly inhabit the coastal city of Gqeberha, the large inland industrial factory town of Kariega, and the two small towns of Despatch and Colchester.

A grim water crisis brought on by severe climate change-driven drought, exacerbated by decaying infrastructure (resulting in major losses through unrepaired water main leaks), has left the municipality’s four dams at less than 15% of capacity. The municipality had to temporarily decommission the barges at one of the four dams, the Impofu dam, on June 11 after water levels dropped too low to allow any extraction.

Nelson Mandela Bay gets 190 million liters (50 million gallons) of water a day from the Gariep Dam in neighboring Free State province, 400 km (250 mi) away, via the Orange-Fish tunnel and the Fish River. But the municipality’s total daily consumption is 285 million liters (75 million gallons), leaving a shortfall of 95 million liters (25 million gallons) every day.

For the past two months, city administrators, local business representatives and South African disaster relief NGO Gift of the Givers have actively prepared emergency water supplies in a last-ditch effort to stave off “Day Zero” — the day when all dam reservoir levels drop too low for any water extraction, and when the taps for approximately 500,000 municipality residents run dry.

This borehole and water distribution site, installed by disaster relief organization Gift of the Givers at Elizabeth Donkin Psychiatric Hospital on June 28, will allow the medical facility to stay open once Day Zero arrives. Image courtesy of Gift of the Givers.

A rush to action: Too little, too late?

The city’s Day Zero was initially forecast for June 17, but brief bouts of rain have raised dam levels by 3% since June 10. However, with the rainy season not starting until October, and the shortfall increasing every day, emergency preparations continue.

The city has demarcated a “red zone” where 25 water collection sites will run 24 hours a day when Day Zero arrives. Each site has 24 taps where people can collect water in buckets.

“The standpipe sites are located along the spine of the water distribution system and mainly fed from the Churchill [Dam] system … west and south of the city,” says metro water crisis joint operations center spokesperson Luvuyo Bangazi. But the Churchill Dam is perilously depleted — currently just 18% full.

In recent weeks, Gift of the Givers, in preparation for the eventual failure of the emergency water collection sites, has drilled 20 groundwater boreholes, and intends to drill 10 more as quickly as possible.

Residents of Nelson Mandela Bay cheer as a new borehole strikes water for the first time.
Residents of Nelson Mandela Bay cheer as a new borehole strikes water for the first time. Image courtesy of Gift of the Givers.

“We have 5 million liters [1.3 million gallons] of borehole water available for a period of time every day now. We are drilling [these] emergency boreholes at schools, rehabilitating old boreholes and putting up [water] tanks with standpipes. So if the crisis [becomes extreme], people can get water close by,” says Martyn Landmann, the hydrologist overseeing the Nelson Mandela Bay emergency borehole drilling for Gift of the Givers.

Landmann adds that most of the boreholes are being drilled on the premises of hospitals, clinics and schools to prevent a shutdown of those facilities when Day Zero strikes. At the 450-bed Gqeberha Provincial Tertiary Teaching Hospital, Landmann and his team have set up a huge borehole water generation project, pumping 250,000 liters (66,000 gallons) of borehole water per day into 10,000-liter (2,640-gallon) tanks, fed directly to operating theaters, wards and nurses’ residences.

But Phumelele Gama, head of the botany department at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha, says he is unsatisfied with the city plan and “truly afraid” the municipality is hurriedly developing a heavy, misguided reliance on borehole water — a limited, short-term solution. Instead, he says, officials should be implementing long-term solutions, such as rainwater harvesting and the building of desalination plants.

At Livingstone Public Hospital, the eighth borehole to be installed in preparation for Day Zero strikes water.
At Livingstone Public Hospital, the eighth borehole to be installed in preparation for Day Zero strikes water. Image courtesy of Gift of the Givers.

Critics: Tapping into groundwater is unsustainable

“I am truly afraid; fearful in a sense that there is no clear messaging taking place,” Gama says. “There is this perception that boreholes are the panacea and will actually answer the issues of drought that the municipality is facing.”

But if urban residents start viewing boreholes as “an untapped water resource that should be exploited ad infinitum,” it is inevitable, he predicts, that wealthier households will want to drill their own boreholes at home, which could dangerously deplete the city’s aquifers.

Another serious implication of the borehole projects is to be found in the region’s hydrogeology, which includes secondary aquifers, where freshwater is stored in fractures and faults within the rocks, as well as primary aquifers, where water is stored in interstices, larger spaces within the bedrock. But with Gqeberha being a coastal city, he explains, “what is not being revealed [to citizens] is that because of the geological nature of the coastal zone, [fresh]water being extracted may be replaced by saline water intrusion coming from the sea via certain fissures in the rocks.”

While it is very helpful in the short-term to have schools and hospitals equipped with an emergency water supply to keep their doors open, Gama says he believes that within six months of Day Zero, borehole water might turn salty and become undrinkable.

Phumelele Gama, head of the botany department at Nelson Mandela University.
Phumelele Gama, head of the botany department at Nelson Mandela University, says he’s “truly afraid” at the developing reliance on borehole water within the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan municipality in South Africa. Image by James Puttick for New Frame.

Pragmatic, far-sighted solutions urgently needed

“There is no guarantee in the long term. We are not sure of the extent of the drought scenario that the metropolitan city is facing. If we continue to have spurious rain events and the drought extends for another year, the volumes of water being extracted will continually diminish the aquifer. With the water not being replaced by rain, the quality will deteriorate and we will be back to square one,” Gama says.

According to South Africa’s Centre for Environmental Rights and the Global Change Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, the scientific climate change forecast for the region between now and 2050 is one of increased “long-duration, multi-year droughts,” reduced freshwater availability, and worsening water quality, which will increase the risk of waterborne diseases. The 2021 report also predicted that with a likely 3° Celsius (5.4° Fahrenheit) increase in global warming by 2050 from pre-industrial levels, the maize crop — the region’s staple food — could be reduced to the point of collapse, while increasingly intense heat waves could mean that “free-range livestock enterprises [may] become economically unviable over much of the country, and outdoor work capacity [could be] reduced by about half.”

Those dire forecasts explain why Gama is strongly advising municipal officials to build a desalination plant. In fact, the city has already conceded the need for desalinated water by welcoming a gesture by Cerebos, a salt factory, which has promises to donate 500,000 liters (132,000 gallons) of desalinated drinking water daily, delivering it by truck once Day Zero arrives.

Residents queue up at trucks to collect their daily water ration.
At the Old Nobuhle location, an impoverished community in Nelson Mandela Bay, the city administration has already disconnected water, leaving residents to queue up at trucks to collect their daily water ration. Image courtesy of Gift of the Givers.

Gama says he also wants the city to provide every household with a 5,000-liter (1,320-gallon) rain-harvesting storage tank so each household has its own emergency supply to get it through the crisis.

“But both these [solutions] require long-term planning, and it doesn’t look like there is even thought of long-term strategies,” he says.

Bangazi says the city agrees with Gama that boreholes are not a long-term sustainable strategy, and it has put in place precautionary measures to stop people from practicing groundwater extraction as a panacea to drought.

“The drilling of boreholes requires permits and each one is registered and will be monitored,” Bangazi says. “Having said that, the city is in the grips of this unrelenting drought and therefore a mix of solutions are being explored including a few industrial-scale borehole operations to mitigate the current crisis. All these operations are done with guidance and direction from hydrological expert advice after careful and systematic assessments are completed, with relevant environmental approvals.”

Speaking to Mongabay after a 72-hour burst of rain that ended on Aug. 8, Bangazi notes that rainwater cisterns “are definitely critical in relieving pressure from supply, but only when it rains significantly.” He also points out that any decision to publicly subsidize the water tanks for households, as Gama has suggested, would need to be put through an integrated development plan and budgeting process.

At the city’s Gelvandale Stadium, a decommissioned borehole was restored and three standpipes installed.
At the city’s Gelvandale Stadium, a decommissioned borehole was restored and three standpipes installed outside the walls of the sports facility where local residents can collect water. Image courtesy of Gift of the Givers.

Rushing into an uncertain water future

In the meantime, the crisis continues to deepen. Some smaller communities, including the village of Chris Hani in KwaNobuhle township, has already seen its water system disconnected by the municipality, and local residents are surviving on just two 5,000-liter water tanks trucked in daily. The area’s 5,000 residents queue up for hours just to get their ration of 1.2 liters (0.3 gallons) per day from the two tanks. And that’s “if they are lucky,” reports KwaNobuhle resident and water rights activist Mziwoxolo Sume.

“There were many times where the water tanker would come only once a week … A day in Chris Hani starts at 6 a.m. queuing for water and residents have become desperate waiting in very long queues,” Sume says. There’s not even enough water to wash dirty clothes.

Sume has joined the newly formed Water Crisis Committee, an umbrella group representing the municipality’s social movements and community-based organizations from impoverished neighborhoods. Like Gama, the committee is advocating for “one house, one water tank.”

The committee has also called on the municipality to fix all major water leaks. For several years, according to experts, 70 million liters (18.5 million gallons) of treated drinkable water has been lost daily via leaks in aging public water mains and at private residences, due to the municipal administration’s failure to maintain the citywide water system.

Pressure from the committee, along with the impending Day Zero, has resulted in about 9,700 water leaks being repaired by an emergency team of plumbers since June 25. But many leaks still need to be stanched.

Residents in parts of Nelson Mandela Bay have built homemade trolleys to cart water rations home from the area’s tanks, trucks and boreholes.
Residents in parts of Nelson Mandela Bay where water has already been disconnected have built homemade trolleys to cart water rations home from the area’s tanks, trucks and boreholes. Image courtesy of the Water Crisis Committee.
This 5,000-liter water tank, and another just like it, are the only two sources of water for the 5,000 residents of the impoverished Chris Hani township in Nelson Mandela Bay.
This 5,000-liter water tank, and another just like it, are the only two sources of water for the 5,000 residents of the impoverished Chris Hani township in Nelson Mandela Bay. Residents complain that they are lucky to get 1.2 liters of water per day each. Image courtesy of the Water Crisis Committee.

The time to act decisively is now, say water experts

Water isn’t the only thing in short supply in parts of South Africa; so too is money. In Nelson Mandela Bay, the unemployment rate officially stands at 36.6%, but in impoverished areas like Chris Hani, most residents survive not on salaries but on a monthly government grant of just $21 per person. A 5,000-liter plastic cistern that can be fixed to the side of a house to catch rainwater costs $320 — more than 15 months’ worth of grant payments. So very few impoverished families can afford to buy their own tanks.

With current intermittent rainfall sufficient to fill a such a household tank, the municipal administration should have installed the tanks already as an emergency measure, says Water Crisis Committee coordinator Siyabulela Mama. But that’s an expense that would likely have to be covered by the government.

There’s another good reason to install the 5,000-liter tanks: In towns like Chris Hani, some residents have fallen ill from drinking trucked-in water, and the committee has now demanded the municipality provide proof that the water being delivered is safe to drink.

Residents also don’t trust borehole water, says Mama. A youth delegation from Rojava in northeastern Syria has warned the Water Crisis Committee that similar boreholes drilled in the Middle East have been contaminated by saltwater and bacteria.

Several recent academic studies into borehole water quality indicate that these warnings are well founded. In 2019, microbiologists and environmental health experts from South Africa’s University of Venda and the Tshwane University of Technology found that 33% of borehole water in the Vhembe rural areas in South Africa’s Limpopo province was polluted with E. coli bacteria.

This 5,000-liter water tank in the Chris Hani township.
This 5,000-liter water tank in the Chris Hani township in Nelson Mandela Bay is very busy every day as residents of the area try their best to take home enough water to survive. Image courtesy of the Water Crisis Committee.

A 2020 study of borehole water quality in 10 public schools in the Giyani region of Limpopo found that groundwater there contained Salmonella, Shigella and Vibrio bacteria species, as well as Campylobacteria and E. coli — with the microorganisms showing “high levels of antibiotic resistance.” The water “was not suitable for human consumption based on hardness and high nitrate concentrations, and posed a serious threat to the health of school children,” the study concluded.
“Chemicals and pathogens are leaking from onsite systems into groundwater,” concluded a 2020 scientific study into groundwater contamination in sub-Saharan Africa. “Polluted groundwater could also act as an environmental reservoir for bacteria and viruses, including new and emerging infectious diseases.”
Back in Nelson Mandela Bay, most of the new boreholes have been tested and found not to contain E. coli, Landmann says. But just to be safe, Gift of the Givers recommends people boil borehole water before drinking it.

Recently, a tentative plan to drill sufficient boreholes to supply most of the city’s water through the main water system was scrapped because the boreholes would not be able to yield the needed 200 million liters (52.8 million gallons) of freshwater needed per day, Landmann says.

With a dangerous water crisis looming in Nelson Mandela Bay, Mama says poor quality water, and insufficient supply, leaves people in “a very dire situation.”

These calamitous situations are almost certainly bound to multiply as climate change gains speed and intensifies, leaving many more people and municipal governments scrambling to access enough freshwater for the long haul.

Bangazi says the city, with support from South Africa’s National Ministry of Water, will be convening a “water resilience summit” in late August to develop a strategy to “future-proof the city from persistent drought effects like this one.”

Banner image: A water reservoir near Cape Town, South Africa. Image by Justasurferdude via Pixabay (Public domain).


Taonameso, S., Mudau, L. S., Traoré, A. N., & Potgieter, N. (2018). Borehole water: A potential health risk to rural communities in South Africa. Water Supply19(1), 128-136. doi:10.2166/ws.2018.030

Odiyo, J. O., Mathoni, M. M., & Makungo, R. (2020). Health risks and potential sources of contamination of groundwater used by public schools in Vhuronga 1, Limpopo Province, South Africa. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health17(18), 6912. doi:10.3390/ijerph17186912

Masindi, V., & Foteinis, S. (2021). Groundwater contamination in sub-Saharan Africa: Implications for groundwater protection in developing countries. Cleaner Engineering and Technology2, 100038. doi:10.1016/j.clet.2020.100038

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South Africa Today – Environment

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