Port Elizabeth – Residents in the Gamtoos River Valley are bracing for a health crisis of unprecedented proportions as – for the first time in its history – the region's biggest supply dam, the Kouga Dam, is set to run dry by the end of April.
"When the dam dries up, there will be no water for drinking, no water for personal hygiene and no water to flush toilets. We are sitting with the reality of an epic health crisis," said Gamtoos Irrigation Board chairperson Tertius Meyer.
Heavy rains at the weekend have seen the Kouga Dam's level rise from 7.1% to 9.3%, and further inflows are expected to take it to 10%, but the dam's level is still critically low.
Should more decent rains not fall in the catchment area in the coming weeks, the Eastern Cape towns of Hankey and Patensie could be plunged into a health disaster, as most of their water is sourced from the Kouga Dam.
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Meyer said that while more affluent residents might be able to stave off the crisis by buying water, poorer communities in the two towns – which share an estimated population of 300 000 – are not likely to be able to afford to buy bottled water.
"The only thing the municipality can do is to bring in water in tankers, but this is prohibitively expensive, costing an estimated R1m a month," said Meyer.
Meyer also pointed out that the area's substantial farming community – a major employer in the region – relied on the dam as its main source for crop irrigation and would be crippled without water.
He said a dry Kouga Dam would lead to crop failures and possible stock deaths on local farms, with knock-on implications for already hard-hit consumers
"The reality is that we are facing a crisis worse than Cape Town's. Day Zero, with all its implications, is looming closer and closer for Hankey and Patensie," he said.
"All that can save us is really good rain."