Ermelo’s water woes deepen as dams dry out

2013-01-13 10:00

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Ermelo’s residents are confused and angry.

Just last month, six people drowned after torrential rain washed away a bridge on one of the major roads leading to the town.

But in the aftermath of those punishing, deadly rains, the Mpumalanga town is in the grip of a water shortage – its entire northern section has been without water for five weeks. In Wesselton township, turning a tap yields absolutely nothing.

The Douglas Dam has run completely dry and the town’s other dam, Willem Brummer, only has 30% capacity.

Athol Stark, chairperson of the Ermelo Business Association (EBA), expressed what many residents are thinking: “Is it lack of rain or a management issue in the Msukaligwa municipality that we are dealing with here?”

Ermelo’s experience is mirrored all over the country: just this week, water shortages hit the headlines in Limpopo, North West and the Northern Cape.

Msukaligwa declared parts of Ermelo a disaster area this week, and a joint operations committee has been established to come up with short and long-term solutions.

Stark said the association had warned the municipality 18 months ago about the town’s looming water crisis. It recently offered R9?million to remove silt that has been building up in the two dams since the 1950s, Stark said, but local politicians declined.

“They said the association didn’t have the technical skills. We said: ‘Don’t be stupid, because we’re going to get qualified engineers to do the job,’” said Stark.

Msukaligwa mayor Sipho Bongwe denied this.

“These are lies. The EBA think they’re the Messiah we should have to account to,” Bongwe insisted.

“We’re talking about the dams not receiving water from the stream. What has silt got to do with water shortages?” the mayor asked.

A local engineer, who asked to remain anonymous, said removing the silt would make the dams deeper and increase their capacity – but that’s a long-term plan that won’t immediately end the water shortage.

“While it is a good time to remove the silt because the dams are empty, the municipality must come up with a long-term plan, taking into account the increasing population and business operations,” the engineer said.

There hasn’t yet been a comprehensive study of Ermelo’s water problems, but locals suggest ailing infrastructure, unrestricted mining further up the Vaal River catchment area and diminished rainfall – occasional storms aside – are to blame.

Fikile Guma, Mpumalanga’s head of water affairs, said the department would allocate an infrastructure grant to help the municipality.

“Things will start happening in 2013/14. We’ll prioritise and see if we can’t connect to Eskom’s water pipeline to augment the supply in Ermelo,” said Guma.

“Some pipes in Ermelo are leaking, so we can’t pump water into a system to be lost. For now, we’ll place tanks in strategic places for people to access water and deliver it in trucks.”

Suburban residents already have tanks in their yards to fill up when there is water. Some, like Stark and his neighbours, get water from a borehole.

In Wesselton, the streets teem with residents carrying buckets each afternoon as they wait for the municipality’s water trucks to arrive.

Dros restaurant owner Louw Greyling bought an 850-litre tank to supply his business.

“It’s still not enough. We sometimes have to close our toilets. This is difficult for all businesses in town,” said Greyling.

»?Meanwhile, other areas hit by water shortages recently are:


Burgersfort and its surrounding townships have been without running water this week because an electrical cable that carries power to water machines was burned.

More than 40 villages in the Sekhukhune district are also in dire straits because of dilapidated infrastructure and illegal water connections.

The province’s Mopani district has also been affected, particularly around Giyani, near the Kruger Park, as dams in the area run dry.

Northern Cape

Seventeen towns in Namaqualand have been without water for three weeks. The area’s water infrastructure system has not been upgraded since as far back as 1971.

North West

The water supply in the Tswaing municipal area has been a problem since 2005 because of a leaking bulk water pipeline built in 1969.

Ottosdal and the Letsopa township have been without water for nearly two weeks.

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