Maverick Citizen

Uncooperative Governance - GRAAFF-REINET

No water, No information: The plight of a Graaff-Reinet community

While the Nqweba dam in Graaff-Reinet is currently 18% full, water extraction has not resumed as the pumps were vandalised and stolen. (Photo: Theo Jephta)

As parts of Graaff-Reinet entered a second year without reticulated water, community organisations wanting to check on progress with infrastructure have been unable to get entry to the areas where the boreholes supplying water to the town are situated. An application in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act has also been ignored.

Two years after residents of uMasizakhe in Graaff-Reinet lost their reticulated water supply, it has still not been restored, with community leaders saying they are now also being starved of information on what progress the municipality has made towards reconnecting their drinking water.

Melvis Pietersen, a community leader and member of the uMasizakhe Water Crisis Committee, said parts of Graaff-Reinet had not had reticulated water since August 2018.

This, he added, had caused many problems in the community. 

“Women, disabled people, the elderly and children must chase after water trucks. Workers leave homes early [in the] morning and return at sunset to no water; certain parts of the community must walk fairly longer distances to access water points, water trucks deliver water unscheduled, there is uncertainty regarding the quality of the water delivered by the municipality and some learners stay [away] from school due to lack of water,” he said.

Another community leader, Sias Smith, said water trucks only arrived between 10 and 12 at night, making it dangerous for the drivers and those who wanted to fetch water.

Pietersen said they have had great difficulty getting any information out of the municipality and had now asked the Eastern Cape MEC for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Xolile Nqatha, to help solve the stand-off “amicably and in good faith”.

“During a consultative meeting by the municipality on the 2019/2020 budget and IDP [integrated development plan] in May 2019, the matter was raised by the communities. The mayor confirmed the availability of funds (about R30m) for water-related projects.

“On Tuesday 25 June, these wards met again to further discuss and seek ways to resolve the matter. Officials from the Water and Sanitation portfolio through the ward councillors were invited to this meeting for clarity on technical and other matters pertaining to the lack of water. None of the officials pitched up at the meeting. 

“The meeting resolved to have a follow-up meeting a week later – to allow officials more time for preparation on these issues. Again, none of the officials pitched,” said Pietersen.

He said that in July 2019 after enduring a number of months without water, they decided to hold joint community ward meetings.

“The ward councillors were on several occasions requested to invite officials from the relevant departments of the municipality to explain to community members what the situation is. These attempts failed. 

“A delegation, consisting of ward councillors and community members from both wards, was set up. The mandate of the delegation was to represent these communities in finding out from the municipality what the factors influencing the lack of water services delivery are.

“The delegation requested a meeting with officials through the office of the municipal manager. The request was granted. The delegation made the request to be offered an opportunity to visit the area (Dam Camp), where most of the boreholes supporting uMasizakhe were. The delegation was accompanied by an official.

“On the return of the delegation from the visit, it requested a meeting with the relevant officials to make more and deeper enquiries for clarity regarding their findings in preparation for a report-back meeting with community members.

“After some deliberation with the officials, the delegation requested a few specific documents relating to some water-related improvement projects that went a few years back. The delegation was refused access to these documents and were advised to use the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). 

“When we insisted on reasons for refusal, the following reasons were given verbally: The requests are broad and vague; the source of the information requested is unreliable and that it was going to take time to collect the information as some was with various sections within the municipality,” Pietersen said.

“Our reasons for requesting documents were, among others, to confirm whether projects were completed or not, ascertain the actual number of boreholes constructed or fixed, whether funds were rolled over to the following financial year, to establish whether a project was implemented in phases or not, whether funds were used for the project applied and approved for and whether the project was implemented with internal or external funding,” he said.

In a subsequent letter to Nqatha, Pietersen said they would take the matter of access to information to the Constitutional Court if they had to, “no matter how long it will take”, stressing that the way the water issue was being handled by the municipality was inhumane.

Pietersen added that their PAIA request was completed and submitted to the office of the municipal manager on 6 August 2019. He said that 30 days later they were told that the director who had to gather the information “was not available”.

Eventually, in September 2019 they filed an appeal but received no answer from the municipality. Two months later Nqatha chaired a water summit in Graaff-Reinet but Pietersen said they were convinced not to bring up the issue of the municipality refusing them access to information at the summit.

He said they did not believe that the water crisis had been caused by drought.

“The municipality is very economical with the truth on matters relating to the water crisis and the matter is poorly handled and communicated. No amount of financial resource support will fix the crisis when the administrative and management aspects thereof are ineffective and inefficient,” he said.

In a subsequent letter to Nqatha, Pietersen said they would take the matter of access to information to the Constitutional Court if they had to, “no matter how long it will take”, stressing that the way the water issue was being handled by the municipality was inhumane.

He said when they first inspected the boreholes used as emergency water supply in 2019 they discovered many problems, including that they could only find 17 of the 19 pumps the municipality had recorded and four of the 17 pumps were not working.

Some pump structures had been vandalised or broken into. An old reservoir that was still being used had a major leak. “It looked like it had been leaking for a few years.”

Five pumps were connected to boreholes but not to the new pipeline. When water levels in the old reservoir dropped below 9% the booster pumps would stop working, Pietersen said.

The Auditor-General has to date not withdrawn any findings against the municipality but instead said that he stood by his findings.

In February the community launched a petition to get an urgent meeting with the municipality and to get access to the documents they had requested.

They still haven’t received the documents.

In July, after the Auditor-General, Kimi Makwehtu, released a finding that his auditors could not find all of the R30-million in drought funding granted to the municipality during the previous financial year, Mayor Deon de Vos released a press statement saying they had been unable to spend the bulk of the grant in the previous financial year because of time constraints.

He added that the grant had been spent on water-related projects, including R300,000 for filters for the Graaff-Reinet water treatment works, R15-million on establishing an emergency water supply for the town and R400,000 on further groundwater development. The rest of the money was spent on towns outside of Graaff-Reinet.

The Auditor-General has to date not withdrawn any findings against the municipality but instead said that he stood by his findings.

Neither the uMasizakhe Water Crisis Committee or the Graaff-Reinet Ratepayers Association has been able to obtain permission from the municipality to visit the wellfields since 2019.

Hydrogeologist Neville Paxton conducted a survey on what infrastructural and engineering improvements were needed at the wellfields in December 2019, but said he had not been able to return.

He said the Graaff-Reinet Economic Development Forum had called on their expertise to evaluate the boreholes. Paxton said as no water was being extracted from the Nqweba Dam at the moment, the town was reliant on boreholes for its water. The boreholes are situated in two areas, one north of town and one on the road towards Aberdeen.

He said a report containing a number of recommendations was delivered to the municipality in December 2019.

“The issues we had identified were easily fixable and will make a big difference.” 

He said they had calculated that these minor fixes could result in at least 11% more water becoming available to the town and 22% under a best-case scenario.

Paxton added that one of the boreholes that could provide up to 5% of the water to the town had been drilled askew and was not in use. A pumphouse had, however, been constructed around the borehole. He said their advice was to drill a new borehole next to the pumphouse.

He said that at another borehole, which supplied about 7% of the town’s water, the pump had been pulled due to a cable problem and had been lying outside the borehole for three to four weeks. When he pointed this out, the municipality had agreed to reinstall the pump.

Another borehole was reported as “not working”, but when it was inspected by Paxton it turned out that it was working but there was no security infrastructure to protect it.

Paxton also raised his concern that the single pumphouses built around the borehole pumps had alarms fitted that would go off if the door were opened.

“But there was no security company to respond to the alarm and instead the police in town would be alerted.

“This is of high concern,” Paxton wrote in his report, “as response time will likely be delayed due to the already strained police. It is of high concern as this will result in theft and vandalism.”

He said at the second wellfield, on the road to Aberdeen, two of the eight boreholes were out of order and three were delivering less water than recommended. Two of the projects stalled while contractors waited for payment, but both had been paid in December 2019.

His main concern was that only one of the three pumps at the booster pump station worked and if this pump failed, large parts of the town would be left without water. He said the municipality had told him that a tender would be put out in May 2020 to replace the pump.

A number of questions and requests for documentation were sent to the spokesperson for the Dr Beyers Naudé Local Municipality, Edwardine Abader, last week but by Tuesday afternoon no answers had been provided. MC 

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