It is not the Department of Water and Sanitation's responsibility to deliver emergency water supplies to parched towns such as Makhanda in the Eastern Cape, it said on Monday as a charity ferries bottled water to the town.
"It is our responsibility to say to a municipality that you cannot allow that thing to happen," said spokesperson Sputnik Ratau as concern mounts over the water situation in the town previously known as Grahamstown.
Ratau said the department is the sector leader and regulator, and assists through issuing directives and supports the municipality to make sure it does not have a failing infrastructure or spillages.
The department also does not have the budget to take water in bulk to the town which, like others including Beaufort West, has struggled through a myriad of water supply-related issues.
Grocott's Mail reported that large parts of the city have had dry taps for at least eight days and trucks organised by a municipality-led crisis committee struggled to service thousands of households.
The city is beset by problems including a drought, maintenance and infrastructure backlogs, empty dams, power supply problems to water treatment plants, leakages and non-payment by some residents.
"Yes, there is a difficulty in terms of water shortages, but it's a number of issues together," explained Ratau.
He said the Eastern Cape did not receive enough rain, something the government had no control over. He added that a lot of water that could have gone into taps had also been lost through pipe failures and illegal connections.
The infrastructure was also not growing in proportion to the population, he said.
This applies to many municipalities across the country, not just the Makana municipality.
He said with a tax base as small as South Africa's, it was not possible for the department to rush bottled water to every municipality in need.
In a statement ahead of another mercy mission to drop water off, Gift of the Givers said that Settlers Dam was at 13%, and because the last 10% cannot be extracted due to high silt levels, it effectively has 3% reserves.
"Waainek Water Treatment Works that receives water from the very much smaller Howieson's Poort Dam had a problem with its pumping capacity due to electrical failure recently and was out of service for a few days," the charity said in a statement.
"However, with rapidly dropping water levels in HP (Howieson's Poort) Dam the Waainek Water Works will essentially shut down. It supplies the west of the town with eight megaliters per day."
The James Kleynhans Water Works is also "compromised" because it currently receives water from the Glen Melville Dam which in turn receives water from the Orange-Fish River scheme.
The recent high content of mud that was released into the dam from the Fish River necessitated shutting down the pumps to allow for the mud to settle. This means about 80 000 people in parts of Makhanda East, and 19 streets in Makhanda West are without water.
Water tankers dot the most affected parts of the town, but there is still a huge shortfall.
Gift of the Givers trucks would leave Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban with hundreds of tons of bottled water on Monday.
"Water will be rationed to 20 litres per day, supplied two days on and two days off," said Gift of the Givers.
"This in essence is Day Zero."
This would supplement water trucks that are delivering to the most water-needy parts of Makhanda via a roster.
Comment from Rhodes University and the municipality was not immediately available.
The university posted a statement last week to say it is open regardless, and called on students and staff to conserve water.