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COVID-19: Dirty water for sale in rural communities

- Lee-Anne Bruce

Communities all over South Africa are faced with a water crisis resulting from systemic governance failures

As communities living in poverty in South Africa struggle to cope with the triple challenge of COVID-19, drought and unemployment, they are forced to use their grants funding to pay for water – often poor quality water.

Over the last few years, civil society’s warnings about the collapse of the delivery of water services have gone largely unheeded by the government. Over the past three years, this problem has intensified as a devastating drought has plagued large parts of South Africa. Many municipalities, already wracked by mismanagement and corruption, have completely failed to deliver the water their constituents need to survive – and to which they are entitled under the Constitution. 

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic requires those same communities to have access to clean water to protect themselves from contracting the virus.

To address this unfolding crisis, affected communities, civil society organisations and public interest law organisations have come together to call on a concerted effort by all spheres of government to take the necessary measures to give effect to people’s right to water.

Public interest and human rights organisations the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, the Centre for Environmental Rights and the Legal Resources Centre are partnering with community-based organisations such as Masifunidise, Coastal Links, the South African Water Caucus, Afesis-corplan, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA), Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG), COPAC, and the C19 People’s Coalition in a joint effort aimed at ensuring that acceptable quality water is made available to the most vulnerable communities as a matter of urgency.

The various communities in neglected regions and metropolitan areas want their voices heard through their personal testimonies and stories to collaborate facts and evidence gathered over the years.  “We hope that by joining forces and creating a space for communities to tell their own stories, that the true extent of suffering and hardship caused by government's inaction will create real impetus for meaningful change,” says Boyisile Mafilika of the Masifundise Development Trust. 

Currently, the South African Water Caucus (SAWC) has a list of 27 communities who are crippled by the lack of water access during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the beginning of lockdown, several organisations have repeatedly appealed to the Department of Water and Sanitation to deliver sufficient water to these communities. Yet this basic human right, so essential for the realisation of other rights in the Constitution, is not being realised by the government, progressively or otherwise. 

“The right to adequate drinking water is guaranteed under the Constitution. SAWC has repeatedly written to the Minister and the local municipalities, without even the courtesy of a reply. Litigation is never our first option in seeking to address these human rights violations but without an urgent response and constructive engagement from government actors, we may have no other choice.” It appears that our respective clients have no option but to approach the courts for relief,” said Melissa Fourie, Executive Director of CER.

Speaking about the institutional breakdown which has led to this crisis and which civil society actors have tried to address with the government for decades, Nontando Ngamlana Executive Director at Afesis-corplan says. “Clearly the local municipality system is broken, and without transparency and accountability. Most notably, the procurement process which has created a lucrative industry of unscrupulous companies awarded water service contracts. Corruption has a disproportionate impact on the poor and most vulnerable, increasing costs and reducing access to services. Effective anti-corruption measures need to be enforced with harsh recourse to discourage the inappropriate application of funds and resources,” 

“Despite increasing numbers of cases in which courts are being used to secure the right to water, securing court orders does not necessarily bring changes on the ground. There is a lot of groundwork to cover. Government’s accountability for the right to water access stems from the understanding that they hold power in trust on behalf of the people and that their mandate includes an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to water,” concluded Nick Hamer, researcher at EMG.

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“There is source of water to provide communities with enough water supply, but often the pipes are passing our houses servicing big companies. We as women, we are carrying heavy burden, walking great distances to fetch water and forced to line up every day to collect water from the trucks that carry water. Our community have been neglected by everyone.  Government need to work on protecting the rights of people not corporations who are greedy and making profit and enjoying our suffering.” 

– Medical Nziba from Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation from Somkhele in KZN

“When water becomes scarce it increases food insecurity in our area,  we can grow our own food, how can we maintain our own health and protect our families.  Things have done from bad to worse, our municipality failed to listen to us.  We are currently relying on any source of water we can find sharing with our animals.” 

– Lucky Tshabalala from Sisonkhe Environmental Justice Network

“Nxopho, Bhele and Gobozane villages are without running water and no trucks have been sent out yet. Ward 4 of the Raymond Mhlaba [Local] Municipality has been without water in the past few months due to unavailability of diesel to pump water from the reservoirs. We did follow up, inquiring about the issue. They say they have no feasible plan to offer water trucks to communities and also no water relief for small-scale farmers.” 

– Ntsika Mateta, Eastern Cape Water Caucas 

“Disease tracks inequality making South Africa particularly vulnerable to this virus. Never before has right to water and waste management services been more urgent than during the next 3 weeks of countrywide lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus (COVID19).” 

– Mandy Moussouris, director of EMG

“Our research and work with water activists in Mfuleni in Cape Town shows that these problems impact your life whether you are a child, teenager, woman or man. Water is in every part of life, there’s washing, cleaning, sanitation – even cows and goats farmed here drink unsafe water, and their meat and milk is sold and ingested, contaminating the animal and food system.

– Apiwe Mdunyelwa, EMG project coordinator