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Protecting water means protecting women


Nabeelah Mia is an attorney in the Mining Programme at the Centre for Environmental Rights. Tatenda Muponde is a candidate attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights.

South Africa is a water-scarce country, and in rural areas, women bear the brunt of water collection and provision. Many of those communities are affected by mining, which is not only heavily extractive, but also a major polluter of scarce water resources.

Water is a burning issue in South Africa, a country ranked as the 30th-most water-scarce country in the world. According to Amnesty International, one in three South Africans lacks access to safe or reliable drinking water. Parts of the country have not yet recovered from debilitating drought. It is predicted that by 2030, South Africa will have a 17% deficit between water supply and demand. With global warming, all of that is set to intensify as dry areas get drier.

Our water woes are worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, where the most important prevention measure for the spread of the virus is to “wash your hands”. The pandemic has exposed the large number of communities in South Africa deprived of this fundamental right of access to water as enshrined in section 27 of the Constitution and cannot practice this basic precaution. In addition, it has brought to the forefront the undue burden placed on women as a result of a lack of access to water — a burden often not seen — and the inequality suffered as a result.

It is trite that a lack of access to water places a disproportionate burden on women especially those living in rural communities. Research conducted by WoMin, an alliance working on the impacts of extractives on women, shows that women bear the primary responsibility for fetching water and, on average, the majority of women spend eight hours a day fetching water for their homes. This not only exposes women to dangers such as sexual violence, but also poses risks to their health, well-being and personal development. The tragedy is not just in fetching water, but also impacts on their opportunities for personal growth as the time spent in search of water and the time required for other household chores leaves little or no time for their self-development. In this way, women are subjected to further discrimination.

In some communities, where historically there has been no or limited access to water and sanitation for years, women have had to walk kilometres daily and stand for hours at a waterpoint to collect water. Lockdown and heightened policing has not only restricted opportunities to do so, but also made it unsafe. At mining-affected communities, water sources have either been contaminated or are being drained by mining companies.

In general, South Africa’s water sources have always been under threat. In South Africa, most of our water supply comes from limited areas which receive the highest amount of rainfall. These are termed our Strategic Water Source Areas (SWSAs) or the “crown jewels” of South Africa’s water resources. These areas are the sources of most of our river systems and make up only 10% of the land while yielding 50% of our fresh water.

However, a substantial portion of our SWSAs coincide with mining, which poses a huge threat to those living in mining-affected areas. These threats include soil degradation, air pollution, and as noted above, a draining of water supply and water contamination, including from acid mine drainage. These effects are detrimental to the livelihoods of people living in mining areas as it affects their food crops, their health and reduces their access to clean water and infringes on their section 24 rights to an environment that is not detrimental to their health and well-being.

With the climate change emergency and its specific implications for South Africa, coupled with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, decision-makers are in the process of considering long-term solutions to address water and sanitation challenges and encourage water security. While most solutions aim to ensure access to adequate water supply and sanitation services, proposed solutions also include protecting water sources and ecological infrastructure, an often-neglected area of intervention.

However, these proposed solutions do not appear to be tailored to those adversely affected by access to water and water security and further, to those who bear the burden. Water scarcity is not just a physical phenomenon — humans play a role in it and women bear the brunt of it.

When decision-makers consider these long-term solutions, they must always properly assess the impacts of activities on water quality and quantity. This does not only mean considering these impacts when solutions need to be found in times of crisis. All decisions affecting water supply and water sources must consider the lives of the people who rely on those water sources for their water supply and further, must consider the burden that will be placed on them should this supply dry up or become contaminated.

Decisions must consider how households function without water to drink, to irrigate food gardens and to feed their livestock. Decisions should consider who the caregivers in those households are, and the effect that being unable to provide water for their families will have on deepening inequality. Most importantly, decision-makers must consider how the consequences of their actions will affect the already immense burden placed on women.

South Africa’s development, health and overall well-being depends on water. The government must make decisions that prioritise access to water and protect water sources over activities that have a significant and detrimental impact on water quality and water supply. In doing so, it will be taking a step in the direction of alleviating the burden borne by women. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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