In the last seven years, Grahamstown’s water issues have affected tens of thousands of residents and captured national attention. Rhodes student organizations, previous Rhodes Vice Chancellor Saleem Badat and even the President of the country were among the voices raised in response to the town’s mass water outages and poor sanitation. While Grahamstown water has drifted from the attention of the national media, many of the issues surrounding water supply and quality remain unanswered for Grahamstown residents.
For a summarised version of this story, find all the fact at https://tonichealthblog.wordpress.com/2015/08/14/side-bar-minerals-metals-and-mass-outages-a-comprehensive-look-at-grahamstown-water/
Concern regarding Grahamstown’s water supply has taken two forms since the problems over quality and supply first reared their heads in 2006.
Water quality, including the presence of heavy metals as well as known microbes such as ecoli, has been an uncertain danger in the back of the minds of both Rhodes students and residents. Water supply and delivery has been another.
These issues were re-ignited in 2013, leaving Grahamstonians uncertain about whether the water is safe to drink. While some locals, based on years of consumption, maintain that the town’s water is perfectly fine, others won’t touch it. There are always people complaining of stomach upsets and cloudy or dirty water.
Ameil Harikishun, as 2015 Chair of student organization Galela Amanzi, has spoken to a number of Rhodes staff about the quality of the water. ‘The last time I spoke to a researcher at the pharmacy department, he said the water was safe to drink’ Ameil says. ‘I know my housemates were concerned about the earthy taste, but [the same researcher] said that that comes from a compound called geosmin that’s completely safe, non-toxic and non-harmful.’
Geosmin is a compound produced by blooms of blue-green algae in reservoirs, the levels of which in Grahamstown water are perfectly safe despite the unappealing colour and taste they produce.
The issues began in November 2006, when severe water outages first were experienced across Grahamstown. At the same time it was locally reported that a number of fish from the local trout hatchery died due to high metal content in the water after the supply was reconnected. Rumors began to circulate regarding chemical imbalances in the drinking water, but water tests conducted at the time showed that the concentration of chemicals such as chloride, fluoride, sodium and magnesium were within the acceptable bounds.
The rumors however continued to circulate, and water quality has been a consistent but unclear worry for Grahamstown residents since 2006. Water supply and delivery, however, has become a very real issue for all Grahamstown residents in recent years.
Raising the issue
In 2013 the Rhodes water crises reached all the way to the President’s desk. The university had been without water for weeks, leaving at least 46 residences without water and affecting thousands of students and academic staff. Rhodes was on the verge of closing down when Vice Chancellor Dr Saleem Badat sent a letter to Makana Municipality that was soon followed by a protest march of students, academics and residents.
In his open letter, Dr Badat said: “It is with great dismay that we are compelled to write this open letter and draw attention to the utter failure of our municipality to deal effectively and efficiently with the crisis in water provision at our university and parts of the town.”
The Makana Municipality responded to the ongoing water crisis, stating that the water supply to Grahamstown was still uncertain because the pump currently in use has no redundancy.
In response to these actions, President Jacob Zuma’s office intervened and water was restored to Rhodes University. Despite the swift response of the presidency to the outrage of Rhodes students and staff, the issue of Grahamstown water cuts and quality had been brought to government attention long before an open letter or march were organized.
Many parts of the Joza and Fingo township in Grahamstown East have been without a reliable water supply for seven years. In the Makana region over November and December 2010 there were a total of 25 infant deaths due to diarrhea according to Grocotts Mail. These were attributed to contaminated water supplies, informed by tests conducted over two years by independent researchers at Impec, Grahamstown’s ostrich product exporters.
Municipal spokesperson Thandy Matebese said that once this was brought to the municipalities attention they agreed to conduct regular tests in collaboration with Impec in order to maintain the water’s quality. Grahamstown’s water quality testing has improved dramatically since this time, with great results.
Water quality improves
Bringing the spotlight over Grahamstown water quality had the desired effect. The results of the Blue Drop Certification Programme, a regulatory body that measures the quality of water supplied by municipalities, show a profound increase in the quality of Grahamstown water in recent years.
In 2010, 2011 and 2012 Makana municipality scored 28.4 (Critical state, needs urgent attention), 55.07 (Average performance, ample room for improvement) and 71.90 (4.5 points from ‘Good status’) respectively in their Blue Drop Provincial Performance logs.
In 2013 the Waainek Treatment Plant, one of the towns two major water sources, scored 54% compliance with the national standards. In a damning report by the Makana Engineering & Technical Services Committee, neither the Waainek nor the James Kleynhans water treatment works (WTW) complied with the requirements of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Abnormally high levels of manganese caused by underground pollution sources and high traces of aluminium, a result of using aluminium sulphate in the chlorinating process, were considered among the most important issues. The turbidity of the final water, referring to the clarity and presence of foreign particles, also did not meet water quality standards.
Since the beginning of 2014, a R100-million emergency Water Intervention Project has been worked on to rehabilitate and overhaul our water systems. The project is funded by the national government and administered by the Eastern Cape Development Corporation (ECDC) because the Makana Municipality, at the time, was not trusted with the money. Waainek treatment plant began correcting chemical imbalances in the water, replacing treatment chemicals with less harmful counterparts and drastically reducing the presence of manganese in the final water. As a result, the plant rose to 99.4% compliance with the national standards in April 2014.
In a statement in April this year in response to questions from Grocott’s Mail, Makana Municipality stated that the Grahamstwon water was safe to drink and that it complied with the SANS 241 drinking water standard as required by the Department of Water and Sanitation.
Water supply and delivery improve.
In response to the water supply needs of the residents of Fingo and Joza, Galela Amanzi was formed as a Rhodes University student project to install rainwater tanks in schools in affected regions of Grahamstown. According to Ameil Harikishun, 2015 Chair of Galela Amanzi, the organization’s mandate has changed dramatically in response to the changing needs of the Grahamstown community.
“The organisation’s mandate was formed in 2010, when (schools) were experiencing very severe water cuts and water scarcity really was an issue,” said Harikishun. “Having gone back to some of the schools, they told me that they hardly ever experience water cuts now, where as some of them say that they do still experience it in which case they do rely on the tanks.”
This feedback from the broader Grahamstown community reflects the steady improvement of water systems to the regions most affected by water outages in the last seven years.
“Some of them very seldomly get water cuts, and if they do, the one principle told me that the municipality were good at having the water truck come and fill up their tanks,” Harikishun said.
Water cuts in the developed parts of Grahamstown have followed the same trend. Water supply and delivery has improved dramatically since the crises of 2013, with fewer cuts affecting campus last year and practically none in 2015. Grahamstown is not however out of the woods yet, with systems in desperate need of attention.
Grahamstown’s dilapidated water systems
In 2014, local water activist Daphne Timm said on the Grahamstown Municipal Services Outage Reporting Facebook page that the crisis has been brewing for decades: “The problems with the water since September last year and right now are the result of 40 years of the lack of maintenance.”
The sentiment expressed by Timm follows the release of details from the minutes of Makana’s own Engineering & Technical Services Committee meeting from February in 2014. These reports were filled with evidence of the risks and failures of Grahamstown’s water systems. Warning such as these have been issued to the Municipality for many years, and been ignored.
Both the Waainek nor the James Kleynhans water treatment works were shown in these reports to have been neglected for decades. The report found a number of management issues at play at these two centres. These included factors such as moderate housekeeping, poor occupational health and safety, poor maintainance of flocculation channeles and settling tanks, poor sludge management and no routine maintenance programme. These problems have been brewing for decades, and so they will still require consistent attention to address.
So looking at our Grahamstown water, a number of things are clear.
The water quality has gone from terrible to within the range of acceptability. Research and regulating bodies such as the Institute of Water Research and the Blue Drop Certification Programme have corroborated the reports by the municipality that the water quality issues have been addressed, with our water meeting many of the requirements set by national standards and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
While a consensus is still to be reached, voices from within the Rhodes staff, the Institute of Water Research and regulating bodies such the Blue Drop Certification Programme telling us the water, finally, is within acceptable drinking levels.
The supply and delivery of water to the Grahamstown centre and the broader areas, similarly, have undergone improvements. While relative reliability and stability have been achieved, the long-term effect of years of neglect and mismanagement mean that water cuts and delivery issues may well raise their heads again in Grahamstowns future.
With the attention that our systems still desperately require, we can’t rely on Grahamstown’s water to be remain untroubled forever. But considering all the evidence, you can drink it and you can expect it to continue coming out of your tap. For now.