HotSpots H2O: Drowning In South Africa Sparks Riot Over Water Shortages

Residents queue to refill water bottles at Newlands Spring on January 31, 2018. Photo & copy; Morgana Wingard/Getty Images

A young girl’s drowning in eastern South Africa this January aggravated existing frustrations over water supply in the parched nation. 

Residents of Mandela Park township, on the edge of QwaQwa municipality, have struggled for years with water shortages. Chronic mismanagement and recent drought have depleted local waterways, which are choked with sewage, algae, and debris. Residents, who periodically protest the shortages, are often forced to rely on emergency water deliveries.

In January, after waiting several days for a water delivery that never arrived, two local girls attempted to fetch water from a nearby stream. The younger of the girls, eight-year-old Musa, drowned. Her mother said she was likely pulled into the polluted waterway by a strong undercurrent. 

Musa’s death reignited water-related unrest in and around QwaQwa, launching a week-long riot. Protestors burned shops, barricaded roadways, flipped government vehicles, and threw bricks and bottles at police responders. Police fired back with rubber bullets.

“We have to strike and burn things, only then do we get water,” Malgas “Skinny” John, an unemployed father of two, told Reuters. “We’ll do it again, we’ll keep burning things if we have to.”

QwaQwa isn’t the only part of South Africa facing water insecurity. Several regions, especially Eastern Cape province, are grappling with low dam levels and water restrictions. In November, several cities were temporarily placed under emergency water regulations, including Johannesburg, the country’s largest urban area.

While recent rains have boosted dam levels somewhat, many areas are still in severe drought. Last week, protestors barricaded the only road into a suburb of Barberton, which is in the midst of a months-long dry spell.

Barberton has been under tight water restrictions for five months, and water levels in the nearby Lomati Dam are hovering around 15 percent. The protestors, who also damaged several water tanks, are denouncing government mismanagement of the ongoing shortages.

In QwaQwa, residents have heard promises that the water shortages will be addressed, with South Africa’s water minister Lindiwe Sisulu pledging 3 billion rand ($203 million) to rectify the problem. No help has yet arrived, even in the wake of Musa’s drowning.

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