It’s a total rip-off, water company rakes in millions from waterless communities

It’s a total rip-off, water company rakes in millions from waterless communities

By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo

Eswatini Water Services Corporation (EWSC), the state-owned water utility, is demanding E2.6 million from approximately 3000 Lavumisa and Somntongo residents in outstanding bills, despite failing to supply them with a drop of water on their premises since February this year.

This is a total rip-off as the basic and standard charge totalling E144 implemented with or without water is no water supply. For the communities of Lavumisa and Somntongo, each and every day they have to scout for water but still have to pay for the basic and standard charge end of each month.

The crisis is partly the result of a joint failure between the eSwatini and South African governments to fulfill their obligations under a multi-million Emalangeni water supply project called SISOMA Water Supply Project. EWSC sits at the sharp end of liability given its responsibility, on behalf of the Eswatini government, to ensure universal water access to all citizens.

Under a shared water agreement between Eswatini and South Africa, EWSC draws water from Jozini Dam in South Africa, which straddles Eswatini, and pumps this to a small balancing dam in Lavumisa, which borders South Africa. This is the only supply of potable water to the Lavumisa region.

Due to climate change, recurring droughts and the size of the dam, it is prone to quick depletion, however it has serviced the area fairly adequately for the past few years – until February this year when water supply came to a complete halt.

In a media statement dated 18 August 2021, Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy (MNRE) Principal Secretary, Dorcas Dlamini, attempted to explain the water crisis in Lavumisa and Somntongo.

She said that in February the pumping system between Jozini Dam and the Lavumisa balancing dam developed electrical problems after the 22kV high voltage underground cable powering the pump was extensively damaged requiring the replacement of four kilometers of cabling.

The repair work, which will apparently cost E12-million, has been left in the hands of the South African Department of Water and Sanitation. This has led to doubts among residents in Lavumisa and Somntongo that the repair work would be completed “within the shortest possible time”, as promised by the Eswatini government. Such doubts are heightened by the fact that the cable installation falls within a privately-owned nature reserve.  

Indeed, the residents’ fears have come to fruition as Dlamini’s promises that pumping would resume by 30 September 2021 have not been fulfilled and Lavumisa and Somntongo residents remain without water.     

“Now it’s already October and our Lavumisa water shortage problem hasn’t been solved. Unfortunately, there is no one from both the MNRE and EWSC who has come and give us an explanation as to why is the installation of the cable taking too long on the South African side,” said Lavumisa mayor, Sazi Nkwanyana.

A Lavumisa resident, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Inhlase that the installation of the electrical cable is likely to be far more protracted because there appears to be a lack of cooperation between the two governments and the owner of the nature reserve. The source claimed that the owner is opposed to putting the electrical cable through the reserve.

To add insult to injury, EWSC has been billing the Lavumisa and Somntongo residents on a monthly basis despite not supplying them with a drop of water on their home premises. EWSC has an extremely poor reputation and has, at best, failed to fulfill its mandate to ensure universal access to safe water and sanitation and, at worst, has cashed in on the misfortunes of its customers.  

According to the World Bank’s eSwatini Water Access Project, most of the population (68%) does not have access to drinking water on their premises and 31% travel more than 30 minutes to collect water from an improved or unimproved source.

Furthermore, under the watch of the MNRE minister, Peter Bhembe, and his predecessor, Jabulile Maswhama who is King Mswati III’s mother-in-law, EWSC has made a fortune from charging hidden costs to customers. Mashwama is now the EWSC managing director.

At the height of the El Niño-induced drought of 2015/16, The Nation magazine exposed a controversial ESWC “basic charge”, which was being imposed on customers in addition to their water consumption charge. This “basic monthly and standard charge” of E144 is still in place. 

“This is an invariable cost, which a consumer pays whether it consumes one litre of water or 1000 litres or nothing,” the publication quoted EWSC public affairs manager, Nomahlubi Matiwane, saying.

 According to the EWSC Annual Report 2020, it collected E55 198 085 up from E28 254 255 metted in 2015 on the back of emaSwati misery during the most severe drought. The basic charge is a highly contentious issue because customers naturally view it as a rip off outside the legally regulated water consumption tariffs that they have to pay. If customers miss a payment, these accrue with interest.

Consequently, the Lavumisa and Somntongo residents are up in arms over this basic charge. Inhlase has seen cases of vandalism and burned building structures at the Lavumisa Water Supply Treatment Plant and Somntongo Inkhundla, which occurred during the June riots in the country.

A Somntongo resident, Absalom Ndwandwe, who runs Msuzaneni Grocery, is enraged by the continued EWSC water bills when there is no water in their water taps. He claims that the last time a drop of water came out of the tap on his grocery premises was in December last year. His anger is fuelled by the failure of the EWSC public affairs and customer service managers to address his complaints.

“I really don’t understand why EWSC continues to bill us when we’re not getting the water supply service. The last time water came out of my own tap was December last year, but I still receive monthly water bills. Neither EWSC nor government is prepared to explain why. My arrears have reached E1, 154 as per the 31 August 2021 statement. My biggest challenge is where one reports to a public company and government for poor service delivery in this country,” Ndwandwe said opening the waterless tap to show Inhlase. 

Chairman of the eSwatini Consumer Forum, Mandla Ntshakala, condemed the unethical business conduct of EWSC, adding that the absence of a consumer protection law in eSwatini leaves citizens even more vulnerable.

When Inhlase probed Trevor Shongwe, the Director of the MNRE’s Water Affairs Department, he seemed to pass the buck saying that all matters linked to the Lavumisa water challenges are now being handled by his superiors including the PS and Minister.

In the meantime, EWSC continues to use water tankers to deliver potable water to the area. This water is delivered once a week in 5000-litre tanks and kiosks, but is entirely inadequate.

Lavumisa and Somntongo residents say that they must ration water among themselves. Two young mothers, Nolwazi Mkhwanazi and Linda Sibandze, know what waterless life is like in Somntongo. Originally from Hlathikhulu and Mahamba with plenty of water, they are still trying to come to terms with the hardships of water scarcity. Their biggest challenge is that there is a scramble for the inadequate potable water delivered by the water tankers.

 “The water delivery sites are first come first serve and have long queues on the day of water delivery. Without proper water rationing, each person is allowed to fill more containers without sticking to the rule of rationing to satisfy the others. Sadly, the community tank becomes empty while many of us are still queuing. The water tanker refills the tanks once a week,” Mkhwanazi said.   

Sibandze added that this forces the women to travel 4 kilometres with donkeys and wheelbarrows to collect water from the quarry pit. With their babies strapped to their backs, these two mothers push their wheelbarrows filled with 25-litre water containers for a long distance back home. Yet, the Government Design Manual allows for a 200 metre-distance to a reticulated system and a 500-metre distance to point system (borehole). 

The stagnant and dirty water, which fills the quarry pit on the odd rainy days has been a source of life for the approximately 1000 Somntongo residents during recurrent droughts.    

“In a place prone to water shortage, we’ve no choice but to share the dirty water in the quarry pit with our cattle and donkeys. All that we must do is to boil it before we use it for drinking and cooking. We know that water from the quarry pit is a health hazard because it’s dirty and tastes differently,” Sibandze says.

There are two disused boreholes, one in the Lavumisa town and the other 500 metres away. If EWSC was serious about ensuring a sustainable water supply service in the area, it is beyond reason as to why they have not rehabilitated these boreholes.  

The Lavumisa and Somntongo rural areas are in the southern part of Eswatini and play a key part in the country’s tourism trade. Lavumisa is at the heart of the Lubombo Tourism East Route Project, which in turn is part of the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA) linked to nature reserves in eSwatini, South Africa and Mozambique. In 2000, the tourism ministers of these three countries signed what is known as the TFCA protocol, which committed them to working together to promote conservation and eco-tourism along the Lubombo Tourism East Route. The Lavumisa Border is a gateway for foreign tourists travelling by road from the Kruger National Park and Maputo to the KwaZulu-Natal Province, a tourist mecca in South Africa.

The Lavumisa mayor says it is high time that the Lavumisa Town Board turned to the solar powered boreholes to supply potable water to the residents which include also Maplotini farmers. He has set his sights on reducing the wholly dependence of Lavumisa municipality on water sourced from Jozini Dam located in South Africa. He plans to suggest putting aside a budget for this municipality initiative in the next financial year. 

At the time of going to press, EWSC public affairs manager had not responded to Inhlase questionnaire.

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