RESIDENTS of Carolina in Mpumalanga have approached the High Court in Pretoria in a bid to force the government to provide them with the water they are guaranteed in the constitution.

The town has been without potable water since mid-January, when mine seepage sullied its main source of water, a local dam. This is probably the first time that a community has taken the government to court over pollution of a municipal water source as a result of acid mine drainage.

The Department of Water Affairs has until the close of business today to reply to papers filed at the court, which allege that some of Carolina's 17000 residents had been forced to drink the town's acid mine water-polluted tap water because the government's efforts to provide water to the town have been so sporadic.

The lawsuit has been filed with backing from the Legal Resources Centre and Lawyers for Human Rights.

Department of Water Affairs spokesman Sputnik Ratau was unable to comment, saying the department had not yet received the papers. Legal Resources Centre attorney Naseema Fakir said papers had been served on the department on Friday.

The two legal bodies want the court to give Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa and six other officials, a month to explain which measures they have taken to supply Carolina, and Caropark and Silobela townships, with water.

In a supporting affidavit, local farmer Koos Pretorius, who is also director of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, an activist nongovernmental organisation, said the Carolina area had not had full access to potable water since January, when seepage from four mines polluted the town dam with aluminium, manganese, iron and sulphates.

Although "about 20" 5000l water tanks had been supplied by the authorities by mid-February, distribution was unequal and the tanks were no t regularly filled.

A first set of tanks was burned by angry Carolina residents last month. They were replaced, but on June 19 it was found only two of the 12 tanks contained water, said Mr Pretorius.

South Africans were constitutionally guaranteed "sufficient water", he said in his affidavit. The Water Services Act further guaranteed access to a basic water supply, and basic sanitation, with "basic water supply" defined as 25l per person per day or 6kl per household per month at a minimum flow rate of 10l per minute, within 200m of a home.

The act requires that no consumer is left without water supply for more than seven days. This seven-day guarantee had been breached, Mr Pretorius said.

The two legal watchdog bodies want the court to hear the application as urgent, declare the government's failure to provide access to reliable, potable water for more than seven days unlawful, direct the authorities to provide temporary potable water, and regularly correspond with residents on measures taken.

blaines@bdfm.co.za