In the early 80’s there was a cholera outbreak in Mseleni – Northern Zululand – not far from the diving tourist spot of Sodwana Bay.
De Victor Fredlund was one of the only two doctors, both British, working at Mseleni mission hospital in rural North Zululand. After the cholera outbreak he realised had to do something about water.
He says people did not have tap water coming to their houses so they drank water from puddles off the roadside. These were the very same puddles that the Nguni cattle drunk from. A survey was done by the hospital and participants recorded that they experienced gastro problems, either diarrhoea or nausea or both, once a week. Being sick weekly was just part of life then, says Dr Fredlund.
Mseleni, like most of the Zulu towns in Northern KwaZulu Natal, has a natural water source nearby. In this case, it is Lake Sibaya.
Victor and the community met and started a co-operative to deal with water problems. They started raising money by buying and selling cement to each other. The organisation received about R20 00 rand funding from the IDT. “There was a lot less paperwork getting funding than there is now,” says Dr Fredlund. The community co-operative laid pipes from Lake Sibaya and each member of the community worked for free.
That was beginning of water for the community around Mseleni hospital. The project expanded and expanded with Victor encouraging the community to lay more pipes so that people could access running water. He says he would always argue that the rest of the infrastructure such as adequate reservoirs could catch up but as many pipes as possible had to be laid. Main pipes were provided and community members had to access them and add their own pipes to their own houses at their own cost. They did this.
The community had to pay for water then to cover the cost of maintenance. Payment for water limited each household’s supply which helped make sure that there was enough for everyone. Dr Fredlund says there needed to be cohesiveness in the community to make sure the system worked. One man drove up and down the pipeline with his own vehicle. He was given petrol money and was paid to fix leaks and problems.
The project expanded over the years with Victor working on water systems, lying on the floor drawing pipes and making plans, year in and year out. He says in one case he redid the plan for a system of engineers who were working on project to put pipes from Chongwe to Malebeni in KZN. His input meant they could use more gravity and needed less pumps. The result was that double the water was pumped to double households at half the cost. He proudly tells me that his son is now a Senior Water and Sanitation engineer for a firm based in Durban.
I was told to speak to Victor by long term residents of Zululand and friends of mine in Cape Town. He single handedly is one reason that many people have (or at least had) running water in or near their homes. I think it is amazing how one British man runs one of the most highly regarded hospitals in rural Zululand and has built, designed and supported much of the water infrastructure in rural Zululand. And he also learnt to do hip operations despite not being a surgeon. He just got tired of seeing people wheeled around in wheelbarrows, I was told.
At some point in 1996 Dr Fredlund says the government took over the managing of the water systems and then the local government took over a few years ago. They have worked on and off since then. Things in Mseleni still go ok almost 21 years later especially near the hospital. But many systems are not adequately maintained. Fredlund says it is much easier to put in a new system than manage and fix an ageing one.
In Ingwavuma, about 80km away a dispute between the municipality and Eskom over what broke pumps means there has been no water for eight months. Even the hospital doesn’t always have water. I broke my foot in Ingwavuma but I couldn’t have X-rays done at the rural hospital because there was no water for the X-rays machines. Luckily I was flying back to Cape Town a few days later and could afford private medicine to sort out my foot.
In Ndumo, close to Ingwavuma, the Shemula water scheme provides water intermittently and it often comes through at midnight complain residents.
The system worked better when the community paid for it. There was money to maintain and fix leaks. “Now the local government has brought in the idea that everything must be free. There is not money to run, manage and maintain the system,” says Dr Fredlund.
Asked if he is disheartened that his years of work, outside his official working hours, don’t show the adequate rewards, he says no. This is even though so few of the water systems in Northern KZN are working properly. Dr Fredlund is positive that people no longer drink from dirty puddles. “Things will never go back to what they were,” he says.
But it’s interesting that since the local government took responsibility for water here has been a disaster. I can begin to identify with people who don’t want to vote. In the words of Dr Fredlund, “things were better when we did it ourselves”.