What mirror did Port Elizabeth break? It’s been in the grip of a drought for seven years now. Worse still, for 28 years it’s also been in the grip of a useless municipality that shouldn’t be allowed to run a spaza shop, let alone a modern city. The Bus Rapid Transport system that was hastily established to burnish PE’s image as a modern metropolis for the 2010 Soccer World Cup has gone nowhere and the buses parked. The main Library had roof leaks in 2014 and closed up shop. A refurbishment program was initiated which, with luck, might be completed this year. Why should the response to the water crisis be any different? With less than a month before Day Zero, one recent official response by the head of the Water and Sanitation Department, Barry Martin, is to pray for rain. Ja, right!
Overlaying this Act of God, or whatever deity you choose, is the Act of Man or the lack thereof. For the last year, my penpal (a bit of an old school word, I know) who inspired this piece has kept me apprised of the water situation in Lorraine and surroundings. Hardly a week has gone by without water being cut off for days while some emergency repair was undertaken on the crumbling infrastructure. In fact as I write this, 26 suburbs in Port Elizabeth were out of water today due to a burst pipe at Churchill Dam. Compounding this Act of Man has been another, namely the copper theft at pump stations. Vandals, it must be said, will never unionise as they don’t sleep on the job, they willing exceed 40 hours per week and happily do night shift. The overall effect, of course, has been a huge uptick in gym membership in other areas for the sole purpose of a free shower.
Cape Town faced its own existential crisis a few years back. More than a year before we were staring down the barrel of Day Zero, a massive publicity campaign was launched to keep the city updated on the situation and citizens cajoled to save water. A daily water dashboard was published giving current water consumption, graphs of the trends with targets and the various dam levels. The most effective measure though was to raise the water tariffs to extortionist levels early on and this was what probably saved the city blushes more than anything else.
In the absence of an effective official response in Port Elizabeth, the residents have taken the initiative themselves with water tanks growing like pestilential weeds in the courtyards of middle-class houses. This is not cheap and prices seem to range from about R7 000 – 13 000 for a small installation as everyone jumps on the only growth industry in town. Obviously, this leads to a fair amount of tank envy as everyone compares sizes of their equipment and their ability to pump. Catholics are lucky as they can easily assuage their guilt each Sunday. “Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I have coveted my neighbour’s tank and been having wet dreams and shameful thoughts.” Tank you!