While all attention is fixed on Cape Town as Day Zero marches ominously closer, we must not lose sight of the fact that it has already happened in KwaZulu-Natal.
Day Zero hit about two years ago when the drought of 2015-16 ravaged the province, leaving the Hazelmere Dam dry and Ballito Bay/iLembe without water. The Umgeni Water treatment plant operators on the Umvoti River panicked when suddenly the flow disappeared, and the people of iLembe became restless.
The Department of Water and Sanitation reacted in shock, blaming sand miners along the Umvoti River for stealing the water, so they shut them down in an armed raid led by the Blue Scorpions. This created a shortage of sand for the concrete needed for the major interchange and bridges then under construction at uMhlanga, forcing listed aggregate companies to cut deals with illegal sand miners, just to keep projects on schedule. Only the legal operations shut down, leaving the illegals to fill the gap in the market.
This is the first lesson to be learnt – when you squeeze legal activities through inappropriate measures, you incentivise illegal operators to fill their place.
Ugu is centred on the Mzimkulu River near port Shepstone. Few of the KZN rivers have dams along the lower reaches, so when the drought hit, the estuary became hyper-saline. This wedge of salt water moved upstream to the intake of the pumps. Saline water was sent through the system, and this is now manifest as failing geysers, corroded plumbing and collapsed soak-aways for septic tanks. These are caused by the aggressive salt water destruction of galvanised steel.
The big issue is the emergence of a criminal elite that controls the flow of water. As the pipes failed, water was delivered by tankers and this became a lucrative business for people connected to political power. Corruption took root with a vengeance. Operators were incentivised to sabotage infrastructure, merely to grow the demand for their tanker services. The municipality, unable to control this sabotage, introduced a by-law mandating every sectional title scheme to have 24-hour back-up storage in tanks standing next to the road, so a tanker could supply them. This triggered a bonanza as plumbers erected tanks, but nobody asked civil engineers to design the foundations for the stands. A 10 000-litre Jo Jo tank weighs 10 metric tons, and if the one leg sinks into the ground, the whole thing crashes down with possible loss of life. Trustees of Bodies Corporate did not think it through, grudgingly buying the cheapest solution, ignorant of the fiduciary risk they were now exposed to in making such a decision.
This is the second lesson – beware of unintended consequences of actions implemented by self-help interventions.
Within the Ugu district is a hospital that serves a vast population of deeply impoverished rural people. HIV/Aids is rife. As the water crisis choked the region, their supply became erratic. Toilets couldn’t be flushed so the hospital management issued an instruction that no toilet paper could be disposed of down a sewer. This created a health crisis that nobody had thought about. Patients defecated in the corridors. Doctors were unable to wash their hands between procedures, so the risk of disease spread.
The Department of Health blamed the Department of Water and Sanitation, and the game of blame-deflection started. Medical doctors, bound by the Hippocratic Oath, felt obliged to speak out. Emboldened by the Life Esidimeni crisis, their voices grew bolder. Journalists heard, and the management blamed doctors for leaking stories to the media. Some were disciplined, when all they were doing was working under an ethical code that defines the medical profession.
This is the third lesson – during the crisis, blame gets deflected, and attention is shifted elsewhere rather than solving the core problem. We have a long road to go as Day Zero approaches, but as a nation we must learn and say never again.