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A drought of political will

- Ufrieda Ho

South Africans are still fighting for the right to basic water supply as enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

Service delivery and lack of services | Curiosity 17: #Democracy ©

Water is life; it is also a weapon of political and social control making this scarce natural resource one that’s increasingly reliant on strong democracies to ensure that it is competently managed, fairly accessed and distributed, and mindfully conserved.

The Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Professor Mucha Musemwa, is an environmental historian. Water for him is a liquid history and a mirror of the “flows and consumption that follow the contour of social stratification”. Musemwa says that colonialism and apartheid were marked by injustices and discrepancies in how water was – and still is – either made available or restricted depending on race, gender, geographical location and wealth.

With the dawn of democracy came the promise of access to water as a basic right. It became a social and environmental justice issue. Underscoring this consciousness, the Water Act of 1998 was enacted to democratise access to this critical resource.

But at the 30-year mark of democracy, Musemwa flags a different kind of threat to water and human rights.

Conflicts and tensions

“Even before we think about water as what some people believe will be the reason for the next world war, we should be thinking about conflicts and tensions over water at a local level. We need to ask why we are experiencing service delivery protests and demonstrations over water outages and water leaks, why we have cholera outbreaks, water shedding, and a water mafia causing artificial water shortages in some areas,” he says.

Musemwa calls out incompetent leadership. He adds: “It is a case of not having the right kind of leadership dedicated to resolving problems. The South African government is complicit in perpetuating inequities, as it has taken very little action against corrupt officials who siphon off resources earmarked for water and sanitation development.”

Democratising natural resources

The story of water and its precarity at this point in our democracy should be a reminder that, more than ever before, the role of elections, robust legal frameworks and the Constitution do matter, Musemwa says. As he points out, water flows into everything from the unresolved land issue, food security, the levelling of economic opportunities in the agricultural and forestry sector and our ability to better withstand the mounting climate change pressures.

Professor Tumai Murombo is a Law Professor and former director of the Mandela Institute in the Wits School of Law. He says that the unequal access and unequal distribution of water remains an agenda topper, 30 years into democracy, but it’s also deeply complex.

“Balancing access to water, food security, environmental sustainability, and dealing with historical injustices is a fraught exercise. Water law, politics and policies are issues shaped by the global economic system. We see inequalities at a micro level, we can see them at a regional and national level, but these are amplified at the level of global economies, technology development, and intellectual property rights regimes,” Murombo says.

He adds that South Africa is still experiencing “a chaos of transition” with competing economic interests in a polarised political space. He highlights the key sticking point which is the issue of the historical water use licenses granted mainly to commercial, white-owned farms by the previous regime. They remain lawful, but without a clear policy approach of how they are to be adjusted for fairer water use allocation, these entitlements remain heavily skewed and keep historically disadvantaged groups locked out.

“There will be delays and trade-offs, challenges and pushbacks in a democracy – using the very democratic Constitution and laws, but it means practically that we aren’t making big enough strides forward,” he says. Proposed amendments to the 1998 National Water Act are still out for public comment and will grind through Parliament this autumn. The proposed amendments are critical for the reallocation of water resources and for curtailing existing users. He adds that there is also a dearth of specialised legal expertise in the country, creating more delays.

“We are not where we should be. We do have the foundational legal framework, and some experience but implementation remains hesitant and poor. It might take five or 10 years more, but we will get a greater degree of legal certainty in how we reallocate water resources more fairly,” he says.

Active citizenry

For Professor Craig Sheridan, another critical pillar alongside legal frameworks and policies is for South Africans to be better active citizens taking personal responsibility to be strong stewards of water use and conservation. We cannot ignore that safe drinking water coming out of a tap has travelled a long journey. Water, he says, is a renewable resource but one that’s also easily wasted and polluted.

Sheridan, who is based in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies and is the Co-Director of the Centre in Water Research and Development, says that active citizenship means doing a more deliberate job of holding authorities to account when it comes to delivery. He says: “The situation right now is that we are not even playing catch-up. We are in deficit in terms of things like the maintenance of pipelines and national planning for water security for a growing population. We also need a secure supply of water that is not linked to treaties with our neighbouring countries that can be torn up when we have weak leadership and governance.”

Sheridan says that citizens need to demand the exercising of political will and competence. We also need to keep up pressure to make planning and investing in water security a priority, as well as the desalination and reclamation of wastewater to potable water. Ultimately he says that citizens have to “engage with democracy” as a safeguard to keep water from becoming a “tipping point issue”.

“Upgrading and replacing infrastructure in terms of water, roads and sanitation just makes sense because the alternative is possible mass civil unrest,” he says.

Sheridan says that outrage is growing and was palpably demonstrated this past summer when parts of Johannesburg – the economic heartland of the country – had no water for close to two weeks. It’s “stressful, but also unifying”. People standing together and choosing to use their voice is positive, he says.

“I am choosing to speak up publicly – it’s not a comfortable position for me as an academic and engineer – but I will speak my truth so that those in government who should be making a difference start to take action. Water is a basic human right, and we should be defending that right,” Sheridan says.

  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the 17th issue, themed: #Democracy, we turn to our academics and professional staff for their research, perspectives and commentary on both the progress and shortcomings in our democracy, and democracies elsewhere.