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Water Outages Loom Over Major South African Hub

Water Outages Loom Over Major South African Hub

Hundreds of thousands of people in one of South Africa’s most important economic regions risk having their taps run dry within weeks.

A severe drought has depleted dams in the southern Nelson Mandela Bay municipality, which includes the coastal city of Gqeberha, with three of the main reservoirs that supply about a third of its 1.3 million people close to empty. Much of the remaining water is of poor quality and the overuse of chemicals to treat it has led to the deaths of at least two children, livestock and vegetation.

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The water shortages have evoked memories of Cape Town’s plight four years ago, when a drought forced the city’s more than 4 million residents to halve their daily consumption. It’s also a sign of things to come — the government estimates demand for water will outstrip supply nationally within the next two years, and the country will face a deficit of almost 20% by the end of the decade.

“Nelson Mandela Bay currently faces an unprecedented crisis in the delivery of basic water supply,” a committee set up by local residents said in a statement. The Kouga Dam that supplies the area will likely be depleted by month-end, “which will consequently leave taps dry across Nelson Mandela Bay’s western areas. We have reached Day Zero,” it said.

South Africa and other nations on the continent are among those most vulnerable to food and water insecurity caused by extreme weather events, according to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The warming of the planet, caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases, is leading to more frequent and more extreme floods and droughts in the world’s poorest continent, according to the scientists.Nelson Mandela Bay was hit by severe drought in 2016 and dams have never been replenished, with levels remaining below 20% the whole of last year. The area typically gets rain throughout the year.

Gqeberha and its surrounds go through 290 megaliters (76 million gallons) of water a day, about a fifth more than the national Water and Sanitation Department says it should, with households accounting for 65% of consumption and businesses the balance. The municipality is the main economic hub in the Eastern Cape province, which accounts for about 7.7% of South Africa’s $429 billion gross domestic product. 

Volkswagen AG is among several multinational companies with operations in the area. While its manufacturing plant in the industrial town of Kariega hasn’t been affected by the water shortages, it is concerned about the impact on its suppliers and employees, especially those who live in the KwaNobuhle township, which has been identified as a high-risk area. Rainwater is harvested at the plant and the water it uses is recycled, it said in an emailed response to questions.

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A reserve osmosis system inside at wastewater facility at Volkswagen’s plant in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa. Source: Volkswagen AG

The 9,000-hectare (22,200-acre) Coega special economic industrial zone, which lies north of Gqeberha and is one of the government’s flagship development projects, has also been hard-hit by the water shortages. Companies have resorted to using rainwater tanks, and have had to contend with reduced water pressure and flows being restricted, said Simlindele Manqina, the zone’s spokesman. 

While environmental approval was granted last year for a desalination plant in Coega, construction has yet to begin.

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