Environmental Champ of the Year: Civil justice activist Ferrial Adam

Environmental Champ of the Year: Civil justice activist Ferrial Adam
Environmental justice activist Ferrial Adam. (Photo: Outa)

The executive manager of WaterCAN is turning the tide on water security in South Africa.

In 1983 in Lenasia, Ferrial Adam was just 11 years old when she went to her first anti-apartheid meeting. Adam is the youngest of five siblings in a family that didn’t shy away from political issues, and human rights have always been at the forefront of her mind.

After taking part in anti-apartheid rallies and protests throughout high school, just before she started university Adam watched Nelson Mandela speak as a free man in 1990, when she was among the crowd on the Grand Parade in Cape Town.

“It was that activism, that critique [of the system], that influenced me to look at justice as a broader issue,” said Adam. “It was always an aspect of keeping human rights and justice at the forefront of everything I did. And so it was almost like a natural progression into issues around the environment.”

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She said people used to talk about environmentalism as only being about conservation, not about people. She gravitated to environmental justice because it brought those two things together. After studying geology at university, Adam said her passion for activism and her passion for the environment merged into environmental justice.

When she was working for environmental justice NPO GroundWork in the early 2000s, she was part of the bucket brigade. This project consisted of a 20-litre bucket, a specialised bag and a bike pump and was an affordable way to take samples of air quality.

Citizens took samples in areas where the government wasn’t testing, such as in polluted areas in the Vaal and South Durban, and sent them to get tested. Coming from a ­science background, Adam said she was ­sceptical about how this would work.

“This method of training community activists to be able to go out and take these samples, when they smelled something was wrong … they then were able to hold the government and private sector accountable (like Sasol). And it actually led to a change in policy,” said Adam.

“I was amazed – that this made sense!” said Adam. “I was already asking the question: is there something like this for water?”

​After working for various environmental organisations such as Earthlife Africa and Greenpeace Africa, and serving as the chair  of the board of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), Adam went on to earn her PhD in citizen science and environmental justice in SA’s water sector, and now works as the executive manager of WaterCAN, an initiative of Outa. Adam said she had been able to put her PhD into practice – WaterCAN provides simple water testing kits – bought from a laboratory in the Free State – to citizens, and trains them to use it.

“We tried to build a network of citizen science activists across the country so that people, wherever they are, can monitor the water resources,” said Adam.

If citizens find bacteria in the water, they can report it to their local municipality. In some areas, this has led to officials putting out notices advising people to boil water, and doing follow-up tests.

If the municipality does nothing, Adam said they asked the groups to create awareness and to inform their community not to drink the water, and they get accredited laboratories to do tests that they can use as evidence to hold them accountable.

This year, they laid criminal charges against the City of Joburg, and the case is under investigation with the Green Scorpions and the Department of Water and Sanitation.

How does she stay motivated?

“It’s overwhelming how bad the water situation in this country is sometimes,” Adam admitted, but what keeps her going is the very fact that it’s so bad, and that we need to mobilise change, as well as the small wins.

“Seeing people work with a testing kit for the first time, and being very nervous about it, but then becoming so confident about using it and making a difference wherever they live,” said Adam when asked what kept her going.

“[For example] the elderly activist, who is using this technology for the first time, and then goes to a municipality and says I’ve tested this water, this water is polluted, and gets their municipality to listen to them.”

Adam said that when you know that millions of people in SA don’t have access to clean water, that most of our rivers and streams are highly polluted with sewage, fertilisers, pesticides and antibiotics, and that our infrastructure is crumbling, “that means that everyone has to get involved”.

“We have to keep building this network, and we have to push. It’s only when we get this big network and amplify voices that we can actually get government change, and also hold any polluters accountable.”

Adam said if everyone who WhatsApp-ed and emailed her about a concern “does something about it, we can push back, we can turn the tide”. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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