Revealing developments of water blues in Somntongo

Revealing developments of water blues in Somntongo

By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo                  

The state-owned Eswatini Water Services Corporation (EWSC) has destroyed a multi-million Lilangeni rural water supply system in Somntongo area – an act residents believe was deliberate sabotage of the privately funded and managed system, which serviced approximately 1000 people.

Inhlase recently reported how the EWSC has become increasingly notorious for profiteering off its monopoly over Eswatini’s water supply system. Somntongo residents have come forward to describe how they have suffered at the hands of the water utility, which will seemingly go to all lengths to ensure absolute control over supply of water to citizens.   

Somntongo is in the south-eastern corner of Eswatini and has been historically battered by persistent water shortages and droughts. A 2005 study by academics Yahaya Mijinyawa and Stanley S’manga Dlamini from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and University of Swaziland respectively found that only two rivers and five boreholes serviced the area while people had to walk distances of between 5 – 20 km in search of water.

“In about 82% of the homesteads, the water use was about 3.3 litres/head/day and 2.3 litres/livestock/day. These are quite low compared to the minimum standards of 25 litres/head/day, and between 25 and 35 litres/livestock/day,” states the study.

The situation in Somntongo is now even worse – residents have been without any water supply since February this year. The EWSC is solely responsible for this travesty, which makes their deliberate destruction of an existing water system in the area even more deplorable.

The Ndlel’ayibonwa Rural Water Scheme in Somntongo was built in 1998 by the Japanese government and donated to the community. Far from being a handout, the genesis of the scheme was the Somntongo community itself, which came together in a stokvel-type arrangement and raised E4000 through contributions from individual households. They had intended to use the money, once they had collected enough, to build their own water system. Their initiative however caught the attention of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), one of the world’s largest bilateral aid agencies supporting socioeconomic development in developing countries, which agreed to assist them.

Sotsha Myeni, a Somntongo resident, told Inhlase: “Faced with long dry spells and water shortages, we desperately needed a rural water supply scheme to meet our water needs. Each household contributed E120 towards the rural water supply scheme. Impressed by our efforts to help ourselves instead of relying on government assistance, the Japanese government decided to meet us halfway.”

According to residents interviewed by Inhlase, the Ndlel’ayibonwa Rural Water Supply Scheme served them well. It was of course not without its problems: a few years ago, the pump engine developed a serious problem and needed replacement. Still there for them, Japan returned to replace it with a new one. On another occasion, the residents had to raise extra cash to repair a vandalised control panel and replace circuit breakers and electric wires. While financially onerous and maintenance heavy, the residents speak of the scheme with great pride because they held a personal stake in it through their contributions.  

In 2015, the EWSC swooped on the Somntongo area with promises of a state-of-the-art water scheme that would solve their water shortage woes. This new scheme, known as the SISOMA (Siphofaneni, Somntongo and Matsanjeni) Project, would be EU-funded, and, in an elaborate labyrinth of infrastructure, would draw water from the Jozini Dam in South Africa, pump this into a holding dam in Eswatini, and then supply potable water to all homes in this water scarce region. SISOMA has been a catastrophe, as Inhlase recently reported here, so much so that residents have not received a drop of water from their taps for nine months – they and their livestock are currently faced with serious health and livelihood losses – yet EWSC continues billing them monthly for water usage!

But what makes this reality even more galling is that in the process of implementing the failed SISOMA scheme, EWSC systematically destroyed the Ndlel’ayibonwa Rural Water Scheme. Resident’s bore witness to EWSC physically cutting the pipes and rendering the infrastructure unusable so that that they (the residents) did not have access to an alternative water supply system.

Somntongo resident, Myeni, said the destruction of the Ndlel’ayibonwa Rural Water Scheme was tantamount to a man killing his old wife after taking a new wife. Born and raised in a polygamous society, he said one cannot do this unless there is an ulterior motive. “Does a man kill his old wife when he takes a new one?” Myeni posed this rhetorical question three times to Inhlase, adding: “That’s unheard of in our Swazi society. No sane man does that who cares about the wellbeing of his family. But the EWSC, which doesn’t care about us, has just done exactly that. It decided to destroy the infrastructure of our old rural water supply scheme.”

During Inhlase’s visit to the region, we were led to a small, run-down pumphouse perched on the wooded banks of the non-perennial Msuzwaneni River, a few kilometres from the MR11 Lavumisa-Nhlangano Road. The exterior of pumphouse is in bad condition, but this belies the good condition of a water pump lying idle inside. The control panel for the pump has been vandalised and the pipes have been cut that carry water to two concrete water storage tanks: one on the dirt road nearby and another on the Nquthu mountaintop. Inhlase is told that the vandalisation of the pipes was at the hands of Inyatsi Construction, which was contracted by EWSC.

“Imagine staying for three days without bathing and sharing dirty water with cattle and donkeys from the quarry pit. Come month end, you receive a water bill on your mobile phone despite not supplying water on the premise for more than six months,” Myeni said. “The EWSC water is better than the salty water of this area. But they display a behaviour of an uncaring monopoly that thrives on our misfortunes. They have not rehabilitated our rural water supply scheme infrastructure, something that we would be falling back on.”

As water collection remains the burden of women and girls in eSwatini, two Somntongo mothers, Ntombifuthi Myeni and Rebecca Zwane, shed light on their hardships in this water-stricken community. Myeni, who is Sotsha Myeni’s niece, takes a swipe at EWSC for billing them with or without water on the premises. She travels 1.5 kilometres to a kiosk to buy water delivered weekly by a EWSC tanker.  

“Life is tough without water as I travel several times to buy it from the kiosk. What makes it harder is that I don’t have a wheelbarrow to load my 25-litre water container. With my baby strapped on my back, I always carry a full 25-litre water container on my head. I then must go back there because one [container] is inadequate. I need at least 5 containers to meet the household needs, including drinking, cooking and other domestic chores.”

Zwane, who comes from South Africa and is married to a liSwati, shares Myeni’s sentiments. She says that water scarcity has put their lives in danger amid the coronavirus pandemic. They are forced to spare the little water they have, to adhere to one of the Covid-19 protective measures – handwashing. She blasts EWSC for ripping them off by charging them for an unavailable water service.

“A lot of us are unemployed, but we’re still expected to have E320 to pay for water from the EWSC kiosk. This is a challenge for my family because we’ve a little baby who needs bathing and washing clothes. We must share our water with our livestock because the quarry pit with stagnant water is too far and others drive their livestock there to drink water. Without sanitizers, we’re forced to use the scarce water to protect ourselves from the deadly Covid-19.”

According to WaterAid Eswatini country director, Ncamiso Mhlanga, each person requires 30 litres of water in the rural areas and 150 litres in the urban areas. The maximum recommended time to travel to and from a water source is 30 minutes in total. The recommended distance is 200 metres to a reticulated water system and 500 metres to a borehole or point system. The Somntongo residents have been forced to travel long distances to the source of water.

Another resident, Ayanda Hlatshwayo, is loading seven 25-litre containers into his car boot. He lambasts the EWSC for destroying the infrastructure of the old rural water supply scheme. He points to a communal tap that is within walking distance for this community, but which was destroyed when the SISOMA project was launched.

Sotsha Myeni says: “Life wouldn’t be too difficult if the community still had its rural water supply scheme. Water from that one was much cheaper because the poor and elderly could raise [a little money] from selling a chicken to contribute to its maintenance. But the SISOMA water is expensive, and one needs to dip deep into the pocket to pay for the metered water or buy water from the kiosk.”

Myeni says that he carries persistent guilt about the destruction of the Ndlel’ayibonwa Rural Water Scheme because he believes it will blemish their hard-earned reputation with the Japanese government. He says that EWSC has reneged on its promise to rehabilitate the destroyed infrastructure. Inhlase has seen a report where the EWSC made such a promise.

In a media statement dated 18 August 2021, Minister of Natural Resources and Energy (MNRE) Principal Secretary, Dorcas Dlamini, said that the SISOMA scheme would be up and running by the end of September. We are nearing the end of October and her promise continues to ring with a loud hollowness.

When Inhlase sought comment from the EWSC, the public affairs manager Nomahlubi Matiwane, failed to respond.  

Director of Water Affairs Department in the MNRE, Trevor Shongwe who is responsible for rural water supply, claimed ignorance about the destruction of the rural water supply scheme infrastructure, and promises to rehabilitate it. He said that the EWSC and Water Affairs Department use a “community-based model” — once a project is completed, it is handed over to the Water Supply and Sanitation Committee (WSSC) responsible for its daily running.

Shongwe downplayed Myeni’s fear that the Japanese government may stop its support for emaSwati in the poverty-stricken rural areas.  

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