Another child drowns in Addo’s killer canal

Children say they have nowhere else to play

Photo of children swimming in canal

Children swim in the Addo irrigation canal because, they say, they have nowhere else to play. Photo: Joseph Chirume

By Joseph Chirume

18 January 2018

The death of another child in the Addo-Kirkwood irrigation canal in January has sparked new calls for the canal to be closed.

Seven-year-old Masonwabe Maxhego of Addo in the Eastern Cape drowned on 4 January when she was swept away by water in the canal where she was playing. The canal passes close to houses in Valencia, where she lived.

Her death is the latest in a long list of fatalities on the canal.

Residents say that years of complaints, including demands that the Sundays River Valley Municipality cover the canal, are not being taken seriously.

The municipality says plans are at an advanced stage to secure the perimeters of the canal.

According to a booklet compiled by the Makhukanye Rural Movement, titled We Died Under Apartheid And Now We Are Dying Under A Democratic Government, between 1984 and 2015, 18 deaths were recorded, 16 of them children.

Addo police report that in 2017 alone, six people drowned. Masonwabe Maxhego was the first victim in 2018.

The 300 kilometre canal runs past the backyards of many communities who live near the banks of the Sundays River. It skirts Kirkwood, Addo, Paterson, Valencia, Enon and Bersheba.

The open canal is a lifeline for farms — mostly citrus — who have no alternative source of water in a region enduring drought. The Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality and the Sundays River Valley Municipality also use the water from the canal.

But for the communities along its banks, it is a danger. In August and November of 2015, hundreds of concerned residents marched to the Sundays River Valley Municipality and the Lower Sundays River Valley Water User Association demanding closure of the canal, compensation for families of those who had died and provision of playgrounds for children.

Children in poor communities where the canal passes through, say they have no recreational facilities and swim in the canal to cool off in the hot weather.

Grade seven learner, Nkosikhona Ngalo said he and his friends often swim in the canal because there were no recreational facilities in Addo. “It is very hot in summer and we don’t have playing parks in this town. I am not afraid of the water because I am a good swimmer. I even teach some youngsters how to swim.”

A 53-year-old resident of KwaNomathamsnqa in Addo said, “The canal runs in our backyards. I know of a teenager who drowned recently while swimming in the canal. We are also losing livestock that are swept away as they try to drink water.“

Police spokesperson, Sergeant Majola Nkohli said police were also concerned with the spike in drownings. Most victims were children who were swimming. The rest were adults who had attempted to cross the flooded canal while under the influence of alcohol, Nkohli said.

“Police are appealing to residents to stay away from the canal and to warn children not to swim in an area of the canal.”

Mike Primmer, CEO of The Lower Sundays River Valley Water User Association, said a fence that protected the canal had been vandalised twice.

He said safety measures in place to discourage people from crossing the canal included steel grids, steel structures to help people get out at strategic places and signposts discouraging swimming. At all the main entrances to the Sundays River Valley, signs had been placed informing people of the dangers of open channels, he said. “Previous fencing was stolen and also breached by the community on a large scale.”

Primmer said his association often repaired the fence and had distributed pamphlets at schools with the help of Swim SA about the dangers of swimming in the canal.

Primmer’s predecessor at the Association, Hans du Plessis, told Groundup in 2015 that closing the canal was not a viable option.

After Masonwabe Maxhego’s drowning, Simphiwe Dada, coordinator at Khanyisa Education and Development Trust, wrote on 8 January this year to the Department of Water and Sanitation: “Children and people of Addo continue to die in the canal. This is to ask for your intervention,ensuring that the access to Addo canal is closed … to save lives of the children of Addo.” The letter was addressed to the department’s Chief of Staff, Siyabonga Nene.

On 16 January Nene responded: ”The matter has been referred to the Regional Head in the Eastern Cape. Let us wait for their response.”

Addo councillor Simphiwe Rune said they had held meetings before with the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation with the hope of covering over the canal.

He said: “There was a study carried out in 2017 that recommended that the project would be done in phases. There is need for concrete slabs where there are houses and also the provision of security guards where the canal passes through residential areas.”

On the question of recreational facilities, Rune said, the Sundays River Valley Municipality had identified a place to build a recreational park and a swimming pool for children in Addo. “We are busy with the project.”