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Taps will soon run dry as 'Day Zero' nears on South Africa's Eastern Cape


People living in South Africa's Eastern Cape are counting down to day zero, the day when the taps in the Nelson Mandela Bay area will run dry. A mixture of climate change and mismanagement means residents there often go for days without tap water. That and the frequent power outages that are plaguing the entire country mean that many are experiencing a real winter of discontent reports Mpho Lakaje.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).


MPHO LAKAJE: For people in this corner of South Africa, shortages have become a daily fact of life - shortage of water, shortage of electricity. It initially started as a temporary inconvenience, but the water shortages rapidly got worse over a period of months here in Gqeberha. And like many, local resident Mziwoxolo Sume had to make alternative plans. So every day, the 27-year-old grabs a few plastic containers he keeps in the corner of his shack in the township on the edge of the city. He walks towards an abandoned building where there's a communal tap, fills his buckets and heads home.

MZIWOXOLO SUME: (Non-English language spoken).

LAKAJE: "When I wash dishes, I have to use as little water as possible," he tells me. "When taking a bath, I have to do the same. I now only drink water at certain times to make sure I leave enough for cooking. So this water issue affects us badly."

The Eastern Cape, birthplace of Nelson Mandela, is known for its lush, rolling green landscapes. But here by the coast in the city Gqeberha, formerly known as Port Elizabeth, the land is mostly flat with miles of beautiful beaches looking out onto the Indian Ocean. And right now, it's very, very dry. It's not the first time a major South African city has struggled with water supply issues. In 2018, Cape Town became the first major global city to face day zero. But many say the shortage here is just as severe.

JOSEPH TSATSIRE: Currently, we are here at the side courts in George's Park. It's one of the site that has been identified, you know, that has got a high yield of, you know, groundwater.

LAKAJE: Joseph Tsatsire, the director for water distribution in the Gqeberha local municipality, shows me one of the sites where they are hoping to drill more boreholes. He says there are multiple issues at play here.

TSATSIRE: We have always experienced drought, you know, every four years. We continue to receive, you know, below average rainfall year on year. And I think for the longest time now, it has exceeded, you know, four years. We're actually on the seventh year receiving below average. Henceforth, we are actually in a crisis where the dams are actually depleting as we speak.

LAKAJE: But the shortage is man-made as well. Aging infrastructure has led to 28% of the water leakages. There were many warning signs, but authorities did little to heed them. And in much the same way, the crisis in the power supply was ignored.


LAKAJE: Generators - the soundtrack of this city and many others across South Africa right now - unreliable electricity supply has become South Africa's nightmare since the mid-2000s and is getting increasingly worse. And this is entirely a manmade crisis with failing infrastructure at the center of the problem. Despite promises to invest and root out corruption, South Africa's ruling African National Congress has done very little so far.

LUKHONA MNGUNI: A number of issues that are wrong, but I think the most patent one now that we cannot run away from is the absence of leadership.

LAKAJE: Political analyst Lukhona Mnguni says the ANC is out of its depth.

MNGUNI: I think you've got a leadership crisis that is multifaceted. They don't understand the problem. They don't have ideas. They don't live in the society. And therefore, what we've been talking about now is a growing trust deficit where people no longer trust the leaders they have.


LAKAJE: Back in the township, a water truck has turned up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

LAKAJE: This is quite something I am seeing children, teenagers, elderly women carrying buckets, rushing to use this moment to get fresh water. Some are pushing what look like supermarket trolleys full of plastic containers. I think this clearly demonstrates the desperation.

Temporary relief, maybe, but Mziwoxolo Sume is frustrated, depressed and angry.

SUME: You want these things to be solved, but you don't know where to go. You don't know how to solve these things.

LAKAJE: But no one in authority has been in touch with the local community. No one has told them when the water will be switched back on. No one has told them when the power cuts will stop. The long, cold winter stretches ahead. Mpho Lakaje, Gqeberha, eastern Cape Province.



This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mpho Lakaje