Maverick Citizen


Pollution, drought, corruption – the perilous state of South Africa’s water

Pollution, drought, corruption – the perilous state of South Africa’s water
From left: Ian Erasmus, Sasol whistle-blower, Palesca Maloisane of the Environmental Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood, Dr Ferrial Adam, WaterCAN manager. (Photos: Supplied)

Wednesday, 22 March was World Water Day. The Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse’s WaterCAN, in association with Lawyers for Human Rights, hosted a webinar on ‘Clean water is everyone’s human right’.

The conversation, facilitated by Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood, was between Dr Ferrial Adam, WaterCAN manager, Ian Erasmus, Sasol environmental whistle-blower, and Palesea Maloisane of the Environmental Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights. 

A new report from the United Nations 2023 Water Conference found that globally we need to be concerned about the quantity and quality of our water, and the same concerns should also apply to South Africa, said Adam during the webinar, which explored the water situation in the country, the importance of whistle-blowers and the impact of industrial and government pollution. 

The state of water resources in South Africa

“If we look at the quantity of water South Africa is a water-scarce country, the average rainfall for South Africa is about 464mm, and there are parts of South Africa that are not receiving any at all, such as the Northern Cape,” she explained. Climate change was an additional challenge, with places like the Eastern Cape likely to get drier.  

There is an inequality in terms of access to water in the country. “Only about 46% of people in this country have running taps in their homes.”

As water quality dwindles, there would be a move towards privatising that water, which seemed to be the direction in which South Africa was moving. “Those that have water will have more, and those who don’t have, will have even less.”

The quality of our water is also concerning due to significant levels of pollution. “We have got high levels of pollution from the mining industry, the agricultural industry and the chemical industry,” Adam explained. The biggest challenge was sewage pollution. “That makes the South African government the biggest polluter of our rivers and our water resources right now in South Africa.” 

Our river ecosystems are threatened because of pollution and climate change. “That is something that if it dies completely it is going to be very hard to do a turnaround.”

Read more in Daily Maverick:Bright blue stream sparks new call for Durban water pollution clampdown

Then there was the problem of high levels of corruption and mismanagement linked to water resources. “There’s mismanagement at the local government level and there is corruption. Corruption is not just a government issue, it is also a private sector issue.” In the private sector, a water tanker mafia was breaking infrastructure so they could continue to get deals to supply water. 

Fixing South Africa’s water problems was not something the government could do on its own. “It is imperative that we all get involved as water activists across the country. We need to create this movement of water activists so that we have a national voice supporting groups taking on a municipality, laying criminal charges,” she added. 

Adam also said that while water wars have not occurred yet, they could soon. “It’s going to happen in southern Africa but it is also going to happen in our country where we’ve got the middle class being able to drop boreholes, poorer people won’t have access and there is going to be that clash.” 

Adam stressed that steps must be taken before this happens and that citizens should contribute to solving water challenges. In addition, “in your own communities’ people are dumping in stormwater drains and construction companies are dumping in our rivers. Those people need to be held accountable.”

The right to water 

The right to water is recognised internationally and nationally as a fundamental human right for people to live sustainable, healthy and dignified lives. It is inextricably linked to other rights such as the right to life, housing, food, education, gender equality and health, since the lack of water creates significant barriers to accessing those rights, said Maloisane. 

Sections 24 and 27 of the Constitution grant specific rights with regards to access to sufficient water, an environment that is not harmful to health and well-being, as well as the protection of the environment from degradation, she added. “If you look at the right to basic sanitation, it’s not an explicit constitutional right. However, the right to sanitation could be derived from the right to a clean environment which could then be read together with the right of access to clean water.” 

Many of the other rights in the Bill of Rights overlapped with and supported the rights to water and sanitation. “This could include the right to equality, the right to dignity, the right to access to information.” 

Section 27 1B of the Constitution provides that everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water and this obligation is extended in section 27(2) which says the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures within its available resources to achieve the progressive realisation of these rights, she added. “The right to sufficient water intersects with the environmental rights and is an enabling right for the enjoyment of other acts such as the right to health and safety.” The right to water was therefore a shared competency between national, provincial and local government. 

Read more in Daily Maverick:Report raises alarm over mines’ pollution of rivers critical to Lesotho Highlands Water Project

When it comes to legislation that stipulates responsibility regarding access to water, section 154 of the Constitution could be considered appropriate as it compels national and provincial governments, through legislative or other measures, to support and strengthen the capacity of municipalities to manage their own affairs, exercise powers and, most importantly, to perform their functions sufficiently, she explained. 

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“Access to safe drinking water and sanitation is fundamental to the enjoyment of other rights such as education, health, or safety. A lack of access to water and sanitation not only impedes other rights but heightens the vulnerability of certain groups such as women or people with disabilities.”

The price of being a whistle-blower

“When you become a whistle-blower it’s quite a difficult path. It is a difficult, long, lonely road and there is not a lot of help,” said Erasmus, who blew the whistle on how Sasol allegedly, through gross negligence, pumped hazardous chemicals into the Vaal River system because of broken chemical sewer valves at its Secunda operations.  

Erasmus said many companies similar to Sasol have policies and memos in place to deter employees from speaking to the media. “According to Nema [National Environmental Management Act] section 31, you can speak to the media, it is still a protected disclosure. If you are a whistle-blower, don’t worry about what your company policy says, the law supersedes any company policies and it is lawful for you to make a protected disclosure.” While there were laws that supported whistle-blowers, such as the Protected Disclosures Act, these were not supported by the government effectively. 

Although Nema and Sasol’s own whistle-blower policies state that any retaliation against the whistle-blower is strictly prohibited and unlawful, Erasmus experienced retaliation. Following his disclosures over the unlawful disposal of toxic chemicals such as vanadium, diethanolamine and potassium carbonate, he has suffered victimisation, been demoted, assaulted twice, forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement, threatened with retrenchment, and now cannot get a job. 

Read more in Daily Maverick:When crises collide — water is South Africa’s next ‘perfect storm’

“There are seven to 10 managers in Sasol that still have not been suspended or faced disciplinary action for their actions that led to the criminal charges against Sasol for pollution or my unlawful dismissal,” he explained. According to Erasmus, Sasol conducted an impartial investigation. However, the lawyer who spoke to him was a legal expert employed by Sasol at the same time. “The lawyer must have known beforehand about my case and the contents of my case, so how can you be unbiased?” he said.

Erasmus made his protected disclosure on 20 February 2019 at the Human Rights Commission where the chairperson, advocate Buang Jones, explained to Erasmus that should Sasol victimise him he should let them know immediately. “When Sasol unlawfully suspended me for the third time, I immediately let Buang Jones and the Human Rights Commission know and the help I [had] received. No help from the Human Rights Commission to whom I made the protected disclosure in the first place,” he said. 

Some solutions 

Supporting whistle-blowers such as Erasmus is important, said Adam. 

If you are aware of a company that is operating without a water use licence, that must be exposed, she added. “You can send it to customer care on the website for the Department of Water [and] Sanitation, or you can send it to WaterCan. We are in a precarious situation and that is why we are trying to build this network of water activists and mobilise because we have to do something.” DM/MC

Absa OBP

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