Three infants die from polluted water in Northwest: Justice must be done

| Melissa Fourie
Photo by Derron Staffen, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In early April 2014, violent service delivery protests erupted at Boitumelong at Bloemhof in Northwest. Residents, accusing Lekwa Teemane municipality councillors of corruption, maladministration and nepotism, torched the house of the mayor and demanded the municipality to be disbanded.

At the time, the municipality had apparently employed a contractor to fix a broken sewage pipe in Extension 5 in Boitumelong. When the protests erupted, the contractor apparently abandoned his work, and did not return.

More than a month later, in the week of 19 May, more than a hundred children at Thuto Lore Secondary School in Boitumelong in Bloemhof reported stomach cramps at school, and the principal instructed children not to drink the tap water. Between the following weekend and Tuesday 27 May, 200 people reported to clinics with symptoms typical of water contamination: stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea.

On 27 May, the municipality finally closed the leaking pipe. The next day, a nine month-old baby, Lehlonolo Sehau, died on arrival at the township clinic after contracting severe diarrhoea. His mother, Kehapilwe Sehau, had walked to the local township clinic early that morning with her very sick baby, but the nursing sister pronounced him dead (only eight hours after he became sick). By 5pm on that day, another 30 people had sought medical help.

On Friday, 30 May 2014, the municipality drained the system, cleaned sand filters and “flushed the system”. On the same day, another five babies were admitted to hospital for observation. The Northwest Health Department warned residents to continue to boil tap water before drinking.

On Monday, 2 June 2014, the Northwest Health Department reported that another two babies, one seven months and one 13 months old, had died of diarrhoea. It appears that the 13-month old was Onalenna Mogoregi, who had started to vomit and have diarrhoea on Monday, 26 May.

According to a media report, his mother Maserame Mogoregi took him to the clinic on that day, but was told that the clinic had run out of medicine. She took him home and kept giving him mageu and Powerade. On Wednesday, 28 May Ms Mogoregi took her son to the chemist, but he did not improve. The next day she took him back to the clinic and he was put on a drip, and then moved to Bloemhof Hospital. On the Friday at 6am Onalenna was rushed to Klerksdorp Hospital, but died on the way to the hospital. Ms Mogoregi is reported as saying “I had been giving him the boiled water and the mixture as people were saying the water is bad. But (the government) told us too late.”

Shortly thereafter, the Northwest Premier announced the suspension of Lekwa Teemane Municipal Manager Andrew Makuapane “on charges of dereliction of duty and negligence”.

According to the Premier’s spokesperson, a forensic investigation was underway. The next day, Northwest MEC Collen Maine was quoted as saying that he believed Makuapane failed to get an existing contractor to fix holes in sewerage pipes, which resulted in spillage. According to MEC Maine, the Municipal Manager should have called the contractor and made sure he was doing his job.”

It appears from this information that at least a month had passed between the date on which the maintenance work the contractor was engaged to do and the date on which people became ill. It also appears the contractor had deserted. The consequence was that at least three infants died from drinking contaminated water.

On 4 June, the Centre for Environmental Rights formally requested the Northwest Police Commissioner and the Northwest Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate the criminal liability of all parties involved in the deaths of the three infants. These parties are the Municipal Manager, the contractor allegedly engaged to fix the broken sewage pipe, any municipal employees whose responsibility it was to oversee the work of the contractor, and any party who had a legal duty to notify residents of proper measures to be taken to avoid becoming ill.

While millions of South Africans live with violations of their environmental rights every day, compromising their health and wellbeing, holding back their development and life expectancy, in this case these violations resulted in the death of children . These deaths were avoidable. The least we can do for the memory of these three lost lives and their families is to investigate whether their deaths were the result of criminal negligence.

Municipal managers across the country must understand that, while there are many pressing needs in municipal management, sewage treatment and the delivery of safe drinking water have to be prioritised above everything else. If these things are not in place, people die.

The Department of Water and Sanitation must implement early and effective community warning systems so that the mothers of babies, so vulnerable to dehydration from the symptoms of drinking contaminated water, have access to timely information and alternative sources of hydration for their children.

Melissa Fourie is an attorney and executive director of the Centre for Environmental Rights.

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TOPICS:  Health Sanitation

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