Solid waste, particularly in urban areas, has the potential, if left unchecked, to pose serious health risks and violate a number of constitutionally enshrined human rights such as the right to clean water and to a clean environment which is not harmful to one’s well-being and health. It thus becomes paramount that waste collection processes are efficient and the disposal of waste is controlled and managed properly.
In South Africa, as the country grapples with population growth and rapid urbanisation, there is a need for the establishment, adoption and implementation of effective and functional waste management policies and programmes. In contrast to other African countries, South Africa ranks as one of the countries with the most progressive legislation when it comes to waste management.
The right to a healthy and clean environment is entrenched within Chapter Two of the South African Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and legislation and policies have been adopted to augment this right. In particular, the National Environmental Management: Waste Act, 59 of 2008 (Waste Act) emphasises the importance of the development of integrated waste management plans by requiring all spheres of government and certain industries to develop integrated waste management plans. Similarly, the National Waste Management Strategy, 2012, has been developed to achieve the objectives of the Waste Act.
Some of the key players when it comes to managing waste are municipalities. The Constitution assigns to municipalities the role of refuse removal, refuse dumps and solid waste disposal. The principles of co-operative governance enshrined in the Constitution require that provinces provide adequate support, capacity and oversight to local government in their respective provinces in the fulfilment of the above obligations.
For the local government sphere to be able to effectively fulfil and deliver on its responsibilities of solid waste management, a number of requirements exist. These include technical skill and capacity; strong fiscal and procurement systems, and sound knowledge of waste management issues. As the country joined the world in commemorating World Habitat Day, the question to be asked is to what extent has the country succeeded in giving effect to the constitutional injunction of an environment that is not harmful to one’s health and well-being?
Although there have been significant gains to provide effective solid waste management services, particularly within the local government sphere, access to these services varies greatly across different geographic areas. A report in 2016 by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) on the state of basic service delivery in South Africa found that access to waste removal services remains highly skewed in favour of more affluent and urban communities. According to the report, infrastructure and accompanying service delivery levels of solid waste removal are worst for households in the poorer localities, mostly rural municipalities.
The South African Human Rights Commission has consistently received complaints from communities relating to the pollution from raw sewerage or sewerage plans. As a current and stark example, after allegations of spillage of raw sewerage and industrial pollutants into the Vaal River, the Commission decided to hold a formal inquiry.
In other instances, the commission has found that households living in informal settlements often lack access to basic services, such as refuse removal which causes unregulated dumping of solid waste and in turn affects living conditions and creates a polluted and unhealthy environment to live in. The right to an environment that is not harmful to health and well-being still remains a distant dream for many who still lack access to sanitation at all and become forced to practice open defecation or use the bucket toilet system which poses a serious health risk and is a serious violation of a number of human rights.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reveal that the mismanagement of waste pollutes the environment and negatively affect sustainable development. Goal 11 of the SDGs is aimed at making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. The SDGs recognises that in order to achieve the above goal special attention should be paid to issues of waste management by municipalities. The New Urban Agenda is also geared towards the minimisation of waste through the adoption of environmentally sound management policies. The goal of creating safe, resilient and sustainable cities is important in the South African context where cities have become places of exclusion, inequality and entrapment into poverty for a significant number of the population.
World Habitat Day is a call to galvanise efforts towards capacitating municipalities to ensure they are well-equipped to provide the essential service of solid waste management through provision of services such as refuse removal. It is also a time for the country to reflect on whether it is on course to meet the targets it set for itself in the National Development Plan, which include among others the expansion of recycling programmes to decrease the total volume of waste disposed to landfills each year and the provision of full, affordable and reliable access to sufficient safe water and hygienic sanitation.
As one of the constitutionally independent institutions, the commission will continue to monitor and assess whether the government is delivering on the constitutional obligation to an environment which is clean, healthy, safe and not harmful to one’s well-being. DM
Advocate Mohamed Shafie Ameermia is a Commissioner at the South African Human Rights Commission who champions the rights to housing, water and sanitation at the Commission.