Living with ‘dirty’ water

In 2012, residents of Carolina, Mpumalanga, were told not to use the town's water for drinking, cooking and washing clothes. Picture: iStock
In 2012, residents of Carolina, Mpumalanga, were told not to use the town's water for drinking, cooking and washing clothes. Picture: iStock

What happens when the dust settles after a service delivery protest? We revisit a community that has used protests and court action to demand better water services. Did it work?

Angel Masina (34) tilts a 25-litre container of water, collected from a tap in her yard three days ago. At the bottom, a greyish sludge has built up.

The sludge is a concern for Masina and other residents of Carolina in Mpumalanga’s Chief Albert Luthuli Local Municipality. The fear of drinking dirty water from the taps has been with residents since 2012 when they could not use tap water for about seven months.

“Today, the water coming out of the tap is clean but three days ago it was not,” said Masina who lives in Silobela township just outside town. “When it is dirty, it comes out of the tap reddish in colour. We keep it for a while so that the dirt can sink before we can use it,” she said.

“This sludge,” Masina said, pointing to the bottom of the container, “is proof that our water is still dirty.”

Masina said a month does not go by without the taps spurting dirty, red water.

Seven years ago, the residents were up in arms and protested violently after tap water was contaminated by acid mine drainage from the coal mines that surround the town.

The warning signs came after a rainstorm hit the area early in 2012 and the town’s water source, the Boesmanspruit Dam, was contaminated by pollution from the mines.

The residents were told not to use the water for drinking, cooking and washing clothes because the acid levels were too high and the aluminium, manganese, iron and sulphates in the water were above acceptable limits.

For months, residents of Carolina lived like this until the situation was brought under control. The Legal Resources Centre and Lawyers for Human Rights, acting on behalf of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment and the community, obtained a North Gauteng High Court order forcing the Gert Sibande District Municipality to provide them with drinking water.

“They would be lying if they say the water problem has been fixed,” Masina said.

The district municipality declined to provide City Press with the results of laboratory tests done on the water, claiming it was performing water testing services and water quality compliance on behalf of the Chief Albert Luthuli Local Municipality.

“After testing, all results/reports are immediately sent to the municipality as our client,” said district municipality spokesperson Lungisizwe Mkhwanazi.

The local municipality did not provide the results to City Press by the time of publication.

The same people in the municipality who say the water is clean, don’t drink it.
Fortunate Shongwe

Mkhwanazi said the Upper Komati Catchment Forum held quarterly meetings in Carolina to brief all affected by the quality of water in rivers and other sources, and the steps taken to deal with pollution threats.

He blamed the dirty water on repair work. “We can acknowledge that, at times, minutely so, it does happen that, during a repair of a broken pipe, muddy water may enter the pipes, which unfortunately may come out of the tap. Also, we are mindful that the town still has asbestos cement pipes and old cast iron pipes that are rusted,” he said.

Mkhwanazi said a programme to replace the pipes was delayed by a lack of funding. “[Once the replacement is done] this will greatly improve the quality of water in the town,” he added.

But local EFF ward councillor Jabulile Ndebele agrees with Masina. “We drink and use the water because we have no choice. The problem is not only that the water is dirty, we sometimes stay without water for four days and when it comes back, it is dirty,” Ndebele said.

“I think the community has protested enough and they are tired. They say nothing about the erratic water supply and when there is rain, they quietly harvest rainwater to avoid using tap water.”

The district municipality did not comment on the water interruptions.

Fortunate Shongwe prefers using water from a spring rather than a tap. Shongwe works for the Carolina Employment Business and Training Centre, a nongovernmental organisation that sometimes fights the community’s battles against environmental problems caused by mines.

“This water may look clear but it doesn’t taste good … there’s something off about its taste,” she said.

“After making tea, you will see the sludge in your cup. I’m getting water from a spring and most people go to get water from Jojo tanks at the mosque in town, but some have no choice. The same people in the municipality who say the water is clean, don’t drink it,” Shongwe added.

  • This package is part of a journalism partnership with Africa Check, the continent’s leading fact-checking organisation. The project aims to ensure that claims made by those in charge of state resources and delivering essential services are factually correct. In the run-up to this year’s national and provincial elections it is increasingly important that voters are able to make informed decisions. This series aims to provide voters with the tools to do that. The Raith Foundation contributed to the cost of reporting. 
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