22 June 2012

Namibia: Life Without Water At Rehoboth

The Rehoboth taps started running on Wednesday evening after long and hard negotiations between Hardap Governor Katrina Hanse-Himarwa, the Rehoboth Town Council, and NamWater.

But while it was not yet clear when water would come back on again, residents were gripped in a panic, fearing a wide ranging ripple effect. The Namibian visited the town on Wednesday morning to see how they were coping.

A thick grey mist hung over Rehoboth for much of the morning on Wednesday. At ground level, mist billowed upwards in plumes from the town's hot springs, shrouding throngs of residents who had gathered at four points to gather water.

Since the water supply was cut by NamWater on Monday, residents have made use of the mineral-rich, but brackish and undrinkable spring water for washing and flushing their toilets.

Since Monday the only drinking water has been from bottles filled up before the cut and stored in fridges, or collected during a welcome hour-long downpour of rain on Tuesday afternoon.

The residents said they were not sure when and where they will next find water to drink. The NamWater suspension plunged the town into a state of panic and no one was addressing residents to inform them how long the crisis will continue.

There was a general feeling among residents that they were let down by their town council, and not by NamWater which shut off the taps.

An endless stream of people started queuing for water at the hot springs on Tuesday, and they were back early on Wednesday morning, armed with buckets balanced on bicycles, piled into trucks, or carried by hand in a scramble for water.

Grandmother Katriena de Klerk and her two granddaughters, Keyne (7) and Charnet (4), started walking to and from their house in Block B to the water points, called the Green Valley near the centre of town, at 06h30 in the morning.

De Klerk said they collect water in two-litre plastic bottles because they cannot afford a taxi to transport bigger water containers.

Residents in Block E, surrounded by the informal settlement on the farthest point of the underground water source are equally desperate because few have transport.

A young mother of three, Christa Bezuidenhoudt, who walked along the street with one child on the back and another on her hip, said they had not had a drop of water to drink by midmorning.

Her son, Arnold (8) complained of feeling tired and sick.

A bunch of young children playing in the streets also complained of feeling sick. They said they had only bread to eat for breakfast, and nothing to drink.

"What happened to the money that we are paying every month?" a man preferring anonymity screamed out from the water point where he collected water.

"This is a terrible situation," said a teacher while waiting in the car for her husband who was standing in a long queue waiting for his chance to fill up his water cans at a water point. "We do not believe the water crisis is a result of non-payments; we believe it is mismanagement. At least God has provided Rehoboth with the underground water; we have cause to be thankful."

Before a directive from the Hardap regional educational office to close schools, the situation at schools had became untenable.

"It would have been impossible to keep schools open; children arrived at school very dirty. They would not stay away from the taps even though they knew there was no water."

Another one, a council worker preferring anonymity, felt that the council should have prioritised its water bill above other expenses.

"We can do without power, but not water," she complained.

It is not clear to what extent residents are allowed to access groundwater.

The Paulus Kirche, erected in 1909, stands on top of the water source, which lies just below the surface.

Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Republic of Namibia (ELCRN) pastor Dean du Toit pointed to the place where the spring was covered over with concrete and stone by previous administrations to limit access to the water source.

The church, which sees itself as the custodian of the water running below its buildings, is distributing water to a nearby church clinic and nurses' and doctors' homes.

"We are sitting on the water," Du Toit said, pointing at a cold spring whose water mixes with the hot spring water at some point on the church premises. "We must open up the water pits once covered," he said.

Businesses at the town have been hard hit by the water cut.

Rehoboth Huide en Velle tannery, a water-intensive enterprise, has practically ground to a halt, not only because of the critical shortage of water, but because the Rehoboth Abattoir supplying it with hides has shut down until the water supply is restored.

Petrus Gaseb said the establishment under normal circumstances uses up to N$100 worth of water every three days for the 200 to 300 hides processed every day.

"There is nothing we can do without water," said the owner of Oase Restaurant, Rens Isaacs, who feared that she would have to close the restaurant for the entire week.

"You cannot prepare food hygienically, you cannot wash a spoon, and you cannot let people use your toilets. I receive international tourists every day. But I cannot allow people in without water. Would I have to carry water from the swimming pool?" Isaacs said.

"I guess we will have to close until we can get enough water," commented barber Roderick Jansen at Ashley's Barbershop.

Smaller clothing and other establishments were concerned that they cannot clean their businesses and do not have toilet facilities for their clients.

Despite the increase in sales of bottled water, the manager at the local Woermann Brock supermarket, Benjamin Vries, said the bakery, butchery and other sections of the shop had to close down. The company has to cover the losses, he said.

Acacia Funerals co-owner Marlowe Theron said the company would have to transfer corpses to its branch in Windhoek at the clients' cost.

"The is mismanagement of the town council," said Theron. "Many people have voted for the Swapo Party [that has the majority representation at the town council] because we thought things would change, but things are the same."

Butchery owner Lindy McNab felt the council should have used money collected for land taxes, sewerage, and rubbish removal to pay the town's water debts instead of allowing the water bill to balloon.

On top of that, she proposed, the town council ought to have charged NamWater for the use of its water infrastructure.

"The town council should operate like a business, not a charity organisation," said McNab.

Live FM community radio volunteer DJ Mario Cuterres said he had received no fewer than 3 000 calls and SMSes from irate residents on Tuesday.

"It would be interesting to see if Government is going to bail out Rehoboth as it did for Gibeon; Rehoboth has more taxpayers than Gibeon," said Cuterres.

"Today we will see what Swapo will do for Rehoboth. The council is inept, reckless and irresponsible and always leave us in the lurch. This thing can boomerang on Swapo's puppets in the council. They must know that they are in the spotlight."

By Wednesday afternoon an agreement was reached and water returned to the town.

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