Government healthcare facilities around the country – the only place the poorest people can go when they are sick – are often left without the most basic resource: water. Many clinics and hospitals have been left with dry taps, sometimes for several months.
The problem appears to be an overlap in responsibilities between the different levels of government. While provincial departments and municipalities have dodged complaints and shifted the blame, patients and clinic staff have been left without. It’s a serious challenge that needs to be addressed with urgency.
There is a blurring of lines over the issue of water supply. While the health department is responsible for the efficient running of clinics, the local authorities are expected to ensure that they have services such as water.
Four months with no water[quote float = right]The situation is very tense. We have to bring our own water from home.’
Recently Lesedi Clinic in Limpopo went for four months without water. The provincial Department of Health (DoH) refused to take responsibility, pointing its finger at the municipality. The municipality responded at a snail’s pace, leaving clinic staff having to bring their own water to work every day and patients being informed that there would be no water available for them at the clinic when they came seeking medical attention.
The clinic, in Lephapane, outside Tzaneen in the Mopani District, had its taps switched off after its water supply was infested with bacteria. Despite the water cut, the clinic was expected to continue functioning normally. Staff and patients were required to bring water for their own consumption when at the clinic.
While provincial health officials expressed concern at the situation, they said water supply to the clinic did not fall under their responsibilities. The clinic’s management told Health-e News that they had approached their local, provincial and the national department, even going as far as the Presidential hotline in an attempt to get their water problems solved.
Last November, the water at the clinic was deemed undrinkable. It was sent for testing at the National Health Laboratory Services and found to be contaminated. Instructions were given to shut off the supply to Lesedi Clinic and the surrounding area.
Municipality to blame
“As the department, we are very worried about the lack of water at the clinic. But that is not our issue. The local municipality is the one responsible for supplying water to the communities,” said Limpopo Health Department spokesperson, Derick Kganyago.
A clinic staff member who declined to be named said staff not only had to bring a supply from home every day to meet their own needs, but they had the added worry of the needs of their patients too.
“The situation is very tense. We have to bring our own water from home,” said the staff member, who added that if patients fainted, water had to be found for them too.
Deputy secretary of the clinic committee, Mpapa Rakgwale, said clinic officials had explored many avenues in their quest for help. They took their concerns to various authorities, working their way up the chain and eventually reporting the matter to the Presidential Helpline before the end of last year – all without success.
“We have been sent from pillar to post since last year. The Greater Tzaneen Municipality has acknowledged the problem and promised to bring water, while our district assured us they would send tanks. Now the tank is here, but there is still no water,” said Rakgwale. “The Presidential Hotline gave us a case number, but since last year nothing is happening.”
Patients bring own water[quote float = right]We are supposed to change the linen every day, but due to this crisis we cannot.”
Lesedi Clinic’s story is not isolated. Recently, Health-e News reported on the Eastern Cape’s Holy Cross Hospital, where sick patients were seen walking out of their wards to a local stream to fetch water. There too, hospital staff told how they had to bring their own water from home, and were constantly concerned about the needs of patients, some of who were sent home to bath and drink. The problem at Holy Cross was said to lie with various boreholes serving the hospital.
Earlier this year, Tshwaragano District Hospital in the Northern Cape also experienced water shortages that lasted more than a month. The crisis left patients unable to use bathtubs or showers as they were given the use of a small basin once a day. This hospital, which is in a village about 20km from Kuruman, serves around 120 000 people.
At the time, Patricia Makati who was a patient told Health-e that she had been battling with bad toothache but had been turned away several times because there was no water at the hospital. Some patients had been told to bring their own 5-litre container of water to the dental department when they needed a tooth extraction, she said.
A water tank was brought in to supply all the needs of the hospital but was not enough to supply everything from drinking water to water for cooking, laundry and cleaning.
A professional nurse responsible for one of the hospital’s main wards said she was not authorised to make a formal media statement regarding the water situation at the hospital, but did say that their work was made more difficult when there was no water. “We are supposed to change the linen every day, but due to this crisis we cannot,” she said.
Families of hospital patients said they were used to bringing water when coming to visit. Like Lesedi Clinic, the hospital was expected to make do and continue to render services to patients. Nurses said they were eternally grateful to those who brought extra water and who shared what little was available in the spirit of Ubuntu.
Local community residents say the problem is not new, and has been reported to government by the National Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu). Yet still, the situation continues.
The Northern Cape Department of Health said they planned to provide a 1000 litre JoJo tank as a temporary solution until the water crisis at the hospital could be permanently resolved. Town Mayor Neo George Masegela has undertaken to follow up on the matter and give proper feedback on everything that is being done.
Meanwhile, staff at Tshwaragano Hospital say that while they are receiving water by JoJo tank, the supply is intermittent and irregular. Some days they have enough, other days they go without.
Spokesperson for the National DoH, Joe Maila, told Health-e News that rather than shifting blame between different government departments, “it is our collective responsibility to make sure water is available for patients and for the health sector to function”.- Health-e News.
“All of us; the municipalities, the DoH and everyone else, need to find ways to make sure water is available for the provision of health services. Water is as important as life itself.”
* Reporting by Mogale Mojela, Mpho Lekgetho, Zizo Zikali, Asavela Dalana, Gill Gifford and Masutane Modjadji
An edited version of this story was published by the Daily Maverick.