Bloemfontein – A toddler dressed in worn-out sandals, a bright red top and blue striped panties desperately pries her fingers into a tap that has run dry in Tambo informal settlement in the Free State town of Senekal.
“You see how our children are,” comments a mother, cradling a baby in her arms. Nearby, a young boy with a tear-streaked face sits in an old wheelbarrow, squashed next to a large white container.
In this dusty town, the struggle for water has literally become a matter of life of death.
A man died in a queue last week while waiting for water, and a woman told News24 how she had contemplated suicide after a friend ended her own life.1
The first restaurant that comes into sight is a Wimpy, with a big sign saying in bold black letters, “No toilet”.
It soon becomes clear this is not the only business affected by the problem. Shops, petrol stations and many restaurants have the same signs outside, with some also having run out of bottled water.
“It is sad to actually tell a customer that they can’t use the toilet because we don’t have water – right now I try to keep the toilets clean with chemicals, but I can’t stop the smell which comes from the pipes,” said Francine Pretorius, who owns Watertand Bakery.
Hopelessness and desperation line the faces of elderly women forced to camp at water stations from as early as 03:00.
With their backs hunched, they walk into the water stations carrying empty buckets, hoping to get a few litres of water. In the scorching sun, men and women in threadbare garments wait for water tankers that can hopefully bring relief to their bone dry taps. Some return home without a single drop.
“It got too much for me and I wanted to commit suicide, but I couldn’t do it. Two days later, a close friend committed suicide because of what we are facing in this town,” a woman told News24.
“I too couldn’t handle it anymore. It is just too much. Everything has dried up completely and we keep running around town looking for water,” the tearful woman said.
Others have been driven to taking their lives. In the Eastern Cape, commercial cattle farmer Krisjan Kruger, 34, could not face the possibility of losing everything he had worked so hard for.
“We are currently experiencing the worst drought in years and it was hard for him to wake up and see his dry land. He lived and gave his life for this land and he eventually crashed,” his friend Jacques Roodt said.
“If only he had waited a bit, because a day later it rained,” he said.
The drought had reportedly claimed a 56-year-old man’s life. Sello Majang, was one of the many locals from the Matwabeng Location in Senekal waiting in long queues to get water from municipal water tankers.
His son Aubrey Majang, 27, said his father had collapsed on January 5 while waiting for water tankers to arrive at the Faith Mission Church in the Matwabeng area.
He said his father had suffered a mild heart attack caused by the heat and dehydration.
Rows of empty containers littered several water stations throughout the town.
‘We are fighting here’
“We are suffering here and it is not nice anymore. Since this morning, I haven’t eaten or even bathed. That is how bad it is in Senekal right now,” said resident Suzan Motsoane, who was in a queue.
“We are fighting here every day for water and although the municipality is offering us 50 litres a day, it is just not enough,” she said.
The elderly woman said the drought had robbed them of their dignity after some were forced to get water from nearby wells which animals were using.
A stone’s throw away from one of the water stations, emaciated cattle were roaming.
Raw sewage flooding from households spilled into the dusty streets. A few metres from a water queue was a blocked toilet. Those waiting in line covered their noses.
The lack of sanitation had affected children and adults, and many had diarrhoea.
The clinic at the community had also complained that the number of sufferers had risen since December.
‘The clinic is always packed’
Mmathapelo Patel from the Boitumelo clinic said: “The clinic is always packed, we mostly admit children who have diarrhoea – and at some point we had to transfer some children who were too dehydrated to hospital – but ever since trucks started delivering water, the number of sufferers has declined.”
The lack of water has also changed the character of many residents. As patience wears thin, there are daily fights to get to the water tankers.
When asked: “How are you?”, most Senekal residents will say, “It is bad, we don’t have water.”
“This has become our reality and we can’t even complain. It is like this everywhere,” said Joseph Mabaso, who waited patiently for a water truck.
However, despite the desperation, help has come from far and wide – from their municipality, aid organisations, the defence force, and an old age home.
Municipal manager Tshepiso Ramakarane said help from other organisations had made a difference in their community.
“Interventions from other organisations are highly appreciated, they bring relief, however, these are short-term interventions and we need more sustainable solutions, such as using water sparingly and replacing ageing infrastructure,” he said.
When a water truck does arrive, a mood of jubilation and excitement fills the air and not a single drop gets wasted. People put their buckets under the sides of the truck to catch the water spilling over.
While they had been helping supply water, farmers were worrying that their boreholes might soon run dry.
Senekal Agricultural Union Chairperson Rita Erasmus said at least 12 farmers had been selling water to the Setsoto local municipality for 15c a litre since December, but this might soon stop.
The water levels of the boreholes were dropping and in order not to exhaust them, some farmers were limiting their supply to 30 000 litres per week. One farmer’s borehole had already run dry.
It is the worst drought since 1932, said Erasmus.
But for the toddler dressed in worn-out sandals, bright red top and blue striped panties, this might be the worst drought she has ever experienced.