Drought-affected farmers west of Welkom have lost their last source of water, after the local mine they charge with polluting their water stopped supplying trucked water.
‘We used to walk into the dam with our nets and catch fish,” says Hannelie Mudge, smiling for the first time in our conversation.
Her eyes flash and then she turns her attention back to driving the SUV. She has to peer over the wheel to see the rutted farm roads. “There was just so much life.”
Her family settled on the rolling plains to the west of Welkom 104 years ago. Water was abundant, filling dams and pans in the area. “We never worried about water.”
Now Mudge, a short woman whose energy dominates any conversation, is frantic. Her phone rings constantly. Every conversation is about water. Her borehole technician calls. It isn’t good news: “Nothing.” She tells him to keep drilling. The yard of her farm is packed with pipes taken from her boreholes. The ones taken from windmills closer to Welkom are a rusty red and covered in white. Exposure to sulphates and metals has eaten through them, turning them into sieves.
She blames the large, dull-yellow-and-brown tailings dams that block out the eastern horizon. A rickety, rusted wire fence is the only boundary between the family’s farm and the dams, owned by Harmony Gold.
Mining came to the area in the 1940s, at the same time as the city of Welkom was founded. In 1961, a large wastewater pipe was built beneath what is now Mudge’s family farm to Dankbaar (grateful) Pan, the largest local source of water. In 1981, the cumulative effect of mining began to exhaust the ecosystems, she says.
She was in matric. “We had dead fish and birds everywhere. The water was killing anything that drank it.”
Things became progressively worse until Anglo American, which then operated the nearest mines, started trucking water to farmers in 1998. Tests from the time show elevated levels of sulphites, uranium and heavy metals in natural water systems. In 2000 a front page of the local Afrikaans newspaper exclaimed: “Minewater kills birds, fish and land animals.” The next year a water supply arrangement was formalised. Anglo created a R10-million trust to supply farmers with water and to build a pipeline to ensure a permanent supply. Then the assets and liabilities of the mine were taken over by Harmony in 2003.
“They immediately started finding ways to get out of that promise,” says Richard Roper (70), another farmer in the Welkom area. He picks his way through a dozen plastic files and ring binders, filled with correspondence between the farming community and the mine. These cover the double bed of his guest bedroom. This is now his office, after a storm tore the roof off large parts of his 90-year-old farmhouse.
“The pollution [in the 1990s] was just so obvious that Anglo had to do the right thing.” His swivel office chair creaks as he leans back, pushing his polished black shoes out in a stretch. “Now Harmony is trying to create a version of reality where there are no water problems.” The pipeline Anglo had promised to build was stopped by new owners Harmony the Friday before construction was meant to start, he says. But the mine still consistently supplied clean water by truck. In its 2005 annual report, it said: “Harmony is continuing with the daily supply of potable water to the affected farming community, and is funding the requirements for a permanent water supply.”
Then, two days before Christmas 2014, he received a survey report by consulting firm Jones & Wagener -- on behalf of Harmony -- saying comprehensive tests had been done and the local water was clean. “It was a nice little Christmas present.” An assayer by trade, he knows his way around specialist reports. A short while later everyone in the area was notified that water supply would be cut off, or reduced. On May 22 that promise came into effect. Roper now pays the original water supplier R1 250 for 16 000-litres of water -- enough for a couple of weeks for his 150 cattle. Other farmers have started paying the local fire brigade to truck them water with their old and worn red tanker. The dozens of cattle herds in the area are now constituted of visibly skinnier cattle, with many oozing gunk from their eyes and other pores. Skeletons proliferate.
The Jones & Wagener report provided justification for Harmony to enforce a 2003 agreement with farmers -- that if the local water supply was visibly improved it would no longer have to supply water. But the farmers point to numerous flaws in the report: tests on boreholes ascribed to the wrong farm, and some farms never having had consultants visit them. A year ago the main source of local pollution -- the waste pipeline running into Dankbaar Pan -- was shut down.
A dry wasteland
Now the pan is a white-crusted wasteland. Jonathan Roper says it is still a petri dish. “The water here is green and yellow when it rains.” That rain brings flocks of birds to the pan -- seagulls and flamingos in their hundreds are common. “The birds just die. The smell is incredible.” Two-headed birds were not an uncommon sight, he says while fixing his glasses back in place. His heavy boots sink a few centimetres into the dry pan with each step. Little grows.
“There will be nothing growing here until the end of days.” Patting dust off his torn and faded jeans, he says water from the pan seeps into all the local water sources. “So you find yourself with polluted water from the pan, and now the water in the rivers is also polluted.” The amount of water coming into the area has also dramatically decreased, he says. “The river comes from the Welkom side and with all the mining and slimes dams that has dried up.”
His round face stays set in a grimace as he talks about the danger to his cattle and sunflower crop. “Basically none of the natural sources of water are open to us anymore. We are farmers without water and what chance does that have of having a happy ending?” The traditionally dry area -- it receives around 400mm of rain compared to the national average of 500mm [the world average is 1 000mm] -- is also battling with a two-year drought. Like large swathes of the Free State, North West, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape it is contributing to a national drought.
A struggle for water
West of Welkom, a local operation polluted the water farms relied on. A deal was struck to supply them with water, but on the strength of a disputed research report Harmony Gold has cut the lifeline.
A national crisis
Mismanagement and waste aggravate the effects of drought
Drought is a creeping disaster. Four provinces are now in the grip of drought and water is being pumped from elsewhere to fill the dams and rivers. But this is depleting the country’s water stock.
Nationally, dams are down an average of 12% from last year, making it the worst drought since 1992. At this time last year, the country’s dams were 90% full, now they are at 80%.
In KwaZulu-Natal, things are worse. Water levels in that province’s dams are down 17 percentage points from this time last year. North West dams are 15 percentage points lower, and Free State dams are 11 percentage points lower. These provinces have declared water restrictions and started drought relief measures.
The drop may seem slight but it indicates a worrying trend, said Christine Colvin, the head of freshwater at the World Wide Fund for Nature, in a radio interview. “If you have several years of drought and shave 15% of your water stock off each year, you won’t have any sustainable water resources left.”
A water specialist, working with the KwaZulu-Natal government, says restrictions were declared but not taken seriously, ensuring a crisis. “This raises the question of how well prepared our other local governments are to implement and police water restrictions.”
Water officials lay the blame for the shortages on poor management. A 2009 report into water shortages in KwaZulu-Natal recommended that the Hazelmere Dam, which supplies north Durban, should be raised immediately. The project has only now been put out to tender.
A water official in the province says: “It’s just another example of government not doing the blindingly obvious, and now we have a water crisis that could have been easily avoided.”
A similar situation has occurred in Bloemfontein, where the Weldedag Dam has lost a quarter of its water in the past year. The city is rationing water and has spent tens of millions of rands buying water from Lesotho as a result.
Water affairs spokesperson Sputnik Ratau said this week that South Africans were wasteful and needed to change their habits. “As a country we are water inefficient. We need to be more prudent.”
In the long term, the same thing is slated to happen in Gauteng because the next phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme has been delayed by two years. Government calculations show demand will outstrip supply in the province before the end of this decade, well before the next phase comes on line.
But it’s not only mismanagement, indecision and inefficiency that has exacerbated South Africa’s water problems. Citizens are to blame too.
Even in good years, the country receives about 500mm of rain a year. The world average is double that. But, rather than being sparing, the average South African uses 235 litres of water a day compared with the world average of 173 litres, says the Institute for Security Studies in its Parched Prospects: The Emerging Water Crisis in South Africa report.
In 2013, the Water Research Commission concluded that a third of all water was lost because of leaks and because of people not paying for water. President Jacob Zuma, in his 2014 State of the Nation address, endorsed the water department’s “war on leaks” to cut this waste.
Municipalities also take money allocated for water by the municipal infrastructure grant and use it for more visible projects before elections to get support. The infrastructure crumbles and leaks, with few technicians available to fix the problems.
The severe drought has cut crop yields by half and food shortages could follow, the World Food Programme warned in May.
“The key is October. If the rain comes, we will pull through. If it doesn’t … well, then government has to take this seriously because there is no contingency plan when there is no water.”
Reporting: Sipho Kings
Video: Sebabatso Mosamo
Photographs: Delwyn Verasamy
Layout and production: Sebabatso Mosamo
Published by the Mail & Guardian © 2015