“Day Zero”: This city is counting down the days until its taps run dry

It’s the bumpy road that runs between tightly packed shacks and beige publicly funded homes that makes balancing 70-litre containers of water a torture on its return.

“Home feels far away when you’re pushing 70 kilograms of water in a wheelbarrow,” says the 49-year-old from the impoverished South African township of Kwanobuhle.

In parts of Kwanobuhle, faucets ran dry in March, and since then thousands of residents have relied on a single municipal faucet to provide their homes with drinking water. And the community is just one of many in the city of Gqeberha’s Nelson Mandela Bay that depend on a system of four levees that have been steadily drying up for months. There hasn’t been enough heavy rain to refill them.

Now, much of the city is counting down to “Day Zero,” the day when all faucets will run dry if no appreciable amount of water can be drawn. That’s in about two weeks, unless the authorities seriously speed up their response.

The wider Eastern Cape region of South Africa suffered from a severe multi-year drought between 2015 and 2020 that devastated the local economy, particularly the agricultural sector. It only had a brief respite before slipping back into drought in late 2021.

Like so many of the world’s worst natural resource crises, the severe water shortages here are a combination of poor management and distorted weather patterns caused by human-caused climate change.

Morris Malambile says he's

Additionally, thousands of leaks throughout the water system mean that much of the water diverted from the dams may never actually make it to homes. Poor maintenance, like a failed pump on a main water supply, has only made the situation worse.

This has left Malambile – who lives with his sister and their four children – with no choice but to wheel his wheelbarrow around the township every day for the past three months. Without this daily ritual, he and his family would have no drinking water at all.

“People who don’t live here have no idea what it’s like to wake up in the morning and the first thing they think of is water,” Malambile said. His family has enough containers for 150 liters of water, but every day he fills about half of it while the rest is still in use at home.

“They’ll be empty tomorrow and I have to bring them back,” he said. “It’s my routine, every day, and it’s tiring.”

Countdown to day zero

The prospects for significant rains to replenish the reservoirs here look bleak and if things continue as they have been, around 40% of the major city of Gqeberha will have no running water at all.

The Eastern Cape relies on weather systems known as “boundary lows”. The slow-moving weather systems can produce more than 50 millimeters (about 2 inches) of rain in 24 hours, followed by days of persistent wet weather. The problem is, that kind of rain just didn’t come.

The next few months do not paint a promising picture either. The South African weather service forecast below-average precipitation in its Seasonal Climate Outlook.

This is not a new trend. For nearly a decade, the catchment areas of Nelson Mandela Bay’s main supply levees have received below-average rainfall. Water levels have slowly receded to the point where the four dams are at a combined level of less than 12% of their normal capacity. According to city officials, less than 2% of the remaining water supplies are actually usable.

Fresh in the minds of the people here is the 2018 Cape Town water crisis, also triggered by the previous severe drought and management issues. The city’s residents stood in line each day for their individually rationed 50 liters of water, fearing they would reach Day Zero. It never really got to that point, but it came dangerously close. Through strict rationing, the city was able to halve its water consumption and avert the worst.

And with no heavy rain expected, Nelson Mandela Bay officials are so concerned about their own Day Zero that they are urging residents to drastically reduce their water use. They simply don’t have a choice, said Joseph Tsatsire, the community’s water distribution manager.

“Although it is difficult to monitor each person’s consumption, we hope to get the message across that it is crucial that everyone reduces consumption to 50 liters per person per day,” he said.

A sign urges residents to limit their water consumption in the Gqeberha suburbs.
To put that in perspective, the average American uses more than seven times that, at 82 gallons (372 liters) per day.

While parts of the city will likely never feel the full impact of a possible Day Zero, various interventions are in the pipeline to help residents in so-called “red zones,” where their faucets will inevitably run out.

Earlier this month, the South African government sent a high-level delegation to Nelson Mandela Bay to deal with the crisis and implement contingency strategies to expand the city’s last dwindling supplies.

Leak detection and repairs have been the focus while plans are being made to extract “dead reservoir water” below the current level of the utility dams. Boreholes have been drilled in some places to extract groundwater.

Some of the interventions – including patching leaks and transporting water – mean some who have lost their water supplies at home are getting a trickle from their taps at night. But it’s not enough, and authorities are looking for bigger, longer-term solutions to a problem that’s expected to only get worse as the earth warms.
Workers constructing a water collection point in the Walmer suburb of Gqeberha.
South Africa is inherently prone to drought, but the type of multi-year drought that causes such misery and disruption is becoming more common.

A desalination plant – to purify seawater for public consumption – is being studied, although such projects require months of planning, are expensive and often further contribute to the climate crisis when powered by fossil fuels.

The people of Kwanobuhle are worried about the future and wondering when the crisis will end.

At the communal tap, 25-year-old Babalwa Manyube fills her own containers with water while her 1-year-old daughter waits in her car.

“Flushing the toilet, cooking, cleaning — these are problems we all face when there’s no water in the taps,” she said. “But raising a baby and worrying about water is a whole different story. And when will it end? Nobody can tell us.”

Customize at home

In Kwanobuhle, social housing is for people with little to no income. Unemployment is widespread and crime is on the rise. The streets are full of local residents vying for money. Old shipping containers serve as makeshift barber shops.

Just across the subway is Kamma Heights, a new leafy hilltop suburb with beautiful, uninterrupted views of the city. It’s punctuated by several newly built luxury homes, and residents can often sit on their balconies and enjoy the last rays of sunshine before the sun sets behind the horizon.

Some residents of Kamma Heights are wealthy enough to secure an emergency water supply. Rhett Saayman, 46, breathes a sigh of relief whenever it rains and he hears water rush into the tanks he’s built around his home in recent years.

His plan to conserve water over the long term is proving to be an invaluable investment in securing his household’s water supply.

Saayman has a storage capacity of 18,500 liters. Water for general household use, such as bathrooms, passes through a 5 micron particulate filter and carbon block filter, while drinking and cooking water passes through a reverse osmosis filter.

Rhett Saayman stands next to one of his multiple water tanks at his home in Kamma Heights.

“We still depend on municipal water from time to time when we haven’t had enough rain, but that can be two or three times a year and usually only for a few days at a time,” he said. “The last time we used municipal water was in February, and since then we’ve had enough rain to feed us.”

He added: “Looking at how things are developing in the city, it’s definitely a relief to know that we have safe drinking water and enough to flush our toilets and shower. Our investment is paying off.”

Residents in many parts of the Bay Area are being urged to reduce their consumption so water can be diverted through standpipes — makeshift pipes placed in strategic locations so water can be diverted to areas most in need.

This means some of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, like Kama Heights, could see a huge drop in their water supply, and they too will have to queue at municipal faucets, just like those in Kwanobuhle.

Looking ahead, local weather authorities have painted a worrying picture of the coming months, with a warning that the problem had sworn for so long it might be impossible to reverse.

“We’ve been warning city authorities about this for years,” said Garth Sampson, spokesman for the South African Weather Service in Nelson Mandela Bay. “Whether you want to blame politicians and officials for mismanagement or the public for not saving water, it no longer matters. Pointing fingers doesn’t help anyone. The bottom line is that we are in a crisis and there is very little more we can do.”

Water drips from a tap at a water collection point in the Walmer suburb of Gqeberha, South Africa.  It is one of many collection areas established in the city.

According to Sampson, the Nelson Mandela Bay drainage basins need about 50 millimeters of rain in a 24-hour period for the dams to be significantly affected.

“If we look at the stats for the last few years, our best chance of seeing 50 millimeter events will probably be in August. If we don’t see significant rainfall by September, then our next best chance isn’t until around March next year. which is worrying,” he said.

“The only way to end this water crisis is through flooding. But fortunately or unfortunately – depending on who you ask – there are no forecasts pointing to rain of this magnitude anytime soon.”