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Human right reality check: South Africa’s water resources must be democratised


Dr Ferrial Adam has worked for various organisations, including Earthlife Africa and Greenpeace Africa. She has served as chairperson of the board of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa). Dr Adam completed her PhD in Citizen Science and Environmental Justice in SA’s Water Sector. She is manager of WaterCAN, an initiative of Outa.

South Africa’s Constitution recognises that access to sufficient water and decent sanitation is a basic human right. It also establishes government as the custodian of all our water resources, responsible for ensuring that water as a resource from rivers, lakes and dams is allocated equitably and used beneficially in the public interest. The reality, however, is that some are more equal than others.

We live in a water-scarce country with complex water challenges that include extreme drought and flooding due to climate change, poor and failing infrastructure, corruption and mismanagement and unacceptably low levels of service delivery. 

As it stands now, government will have you believe that 93% of South Africans have access to water services. The way that access is reported, though, is disingenuous as less than 50% of South Africans have taps in their homes and 9% of the population – many from poor communities – have to rely on springs and rivers for water. 

More and more people are forced to contend with having little to no water, with Day Zero a looming reality for many towns. There are predictions that parts of Nelson Mandela Bay, Beaufort West and even Gauteng could run dry in the next 10-15 years. 

Many communities do not have access to clean, safe drinking water and are dependent on polluted rivers, faraway standpipes or rapidly depleting boreholes. The percentage of access government uses is far from the reality on the ground.

Mismanagement and corruption at a local government level has resulted in intermittent water access and increased pollution affecting communities around the country. As much as 50% of SA’s drinking water is being lost through leaking pipes, dripping taps and infrastructure failures. This costs the country in the region of R7.2-billion a year. In addition, the South African Human Rights Commission has reported that raw sewage is leaking into key river systems. Very little of meaningful value is being done to address this crisis. 

It is no surprise, then, that water and sanitation-related protests increased from 528 in 2017 to 737 in 2018 in all provinces. 

Critically, government continues to overexploit and allow large users to control water resources that should belong to all. The result is that industrial-scale consumers such as agriculture, mining and energy are diverting water sources and blocking access for others. 

There is an old 1956 apartheid mindset that is still entrenched in our farming and mining communities who have no understanding of the need to share something as basic as water. We saw this as Cape Town approached Day Zero in 2018 when farmers were hoarding water, and then felt as if they were doing people a favour by releasing some of the water from their dams. 

Worse still is that people with these mindsets continue to plunder this invaluable resource with no concern for its sustainability for future generations. Rivers and streams are diverted, illegal dams built and boreholes sunk with no understanding of the vital importance of preserving groundwater. As water becomes scarcer, this hoarding and controlling of water resources will lead to more conflict.

In Lemoenshoek Valley in the Western Cape, conflict has arisen between farmers who share a river. This is now playing out in a legal battle. The farmer upstream has diverted water from the river to a dam on his property without approval from the water department. He has also sunk an illegal borehole upstream of the dam, directly in the river bed, which has had a devastating effect on the groundwater table for the entire valley downstream, where two other farms are directly affected.

When these farmers started out, there was a clear mountain river with a healthy ecosystem that ran through each of their properties. This river has now dried up due to the illegal and immoral conduct of farming practices upstream. An emerging farmer, whose property was a viable farming operation, has now become a wasteland. He has lost more than 70 sheep due to lack of water to irrigate his fields and he can’t afford to take the matter to court. In 2021, the rains brought some welcome relief but the farmer upstream has used a pipeline to divert all the water on to his property. The rivers downstream are no longer flowing.

A court has ordered that a third of the water entering the upstream dam be released to the river. However, the lack of monitoring by relevant authorities has allowed the farmer upstream to ignore the court order and he has failed to comply. 

Government representatives from the Departments of Water and Sanitation, Agriculture and Environment, Forestry and Fisheries have all visited the area to assess the situation and are now taking legal action against the farmer upstream. Court cases cost money and can drag on for years. In the meantime, the environment and people’s basic livelihoods are being destroyed.

For many South Africans, this might be a trivial fight between a few middle-class farmers, but the issue is that if the farmer upstream wins this case and is allowed to continue to siphon off water from the river, it could set a precedent for farmers around the country to divert water away from the natural waterways and onto their properties. 

Commercial agriculture is allocated at least 65% of all of South Africa’s water. This case could legitimise water theft and we could become the Wild West of water injustice.

So what should we be doing about this? We cannot sit by and wait for our water to dry up, be stolen or controlled by a few. People need to raise their voices and act to democratise our water resources. This is what the 1998 National Water Act (NWA) set out to do over 20 years ago. It is aimed at righting the wrongs of the past and promoting water-sharing and the sustainability of our environment and water resources.

One way for us to get involved is to strengthen the catchment management forums (proposed by the NWA). These forums are supposed to allow people to be heard, and to create a space for everyone to make decisions on water rather than leaving it up to government and large water users. In these forums, the people must democratically decide and monitor the licences of water uses.

Finally, we must not forget the power of the ordinary person to bring about change. We must build a network/movement of people to test our water resources and build a platform to monitor the information from across the country. 

As a movement, we can hold those who abuse our water resources accountable. In the case of the farmers in Lemoenshoek, it should not be two small farmers fighting against one; it should be all the people in the catchment area and beyond, against one. 

Water is life and it must be democratised. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Peter Pyke says:

    The biggest and dismal failure of central Government and local government in water issues has been caused by the policy of Cadre deployment where incompetent, inexperienced people have replaced experienced technocrats in the water sector. Most of this expertise has now been lost to the country and will cost us dearly in future as our world class water infrastructure crumbles and we are faced with the reality of life in an arid climate without the required expertise.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Yes, you are correct Peter.
    However, what Ferrial is proposing is that we need to move forward and repair a damaged system, with which sentiment I agree as well.
    BUT – democratise water? I don’t know what that actually means. If it means that municipalities/communities who waste “… As much as 50% of SA’s drinking water [which] is being lost through leaking pipes, dripping taps and infrastructure failures … ” get to decide on water allocations, my vote is no. If it means that squatter settlements who demand free and plentiful supply of water get to decide on water allocations, again my vote is no.
    The only way to restore sanity to our water supply situation is, as Peter points out, to re-instate technocrats in our water management and get rid of the bloated staffing structures created via cadre deployment.

  • Barrie Lewis says:

    A great article, Dr Ferrial. Thank you.
    I have done some lateral thinking on this subject, and it has taken me in a different direction. There is one massive water resource that we have barely tapped into. It’s far bigger than dams and rivers, ground water and boreholes. I’m talking about the rainfall. It falls from the sky, often in such great torrents that it causes huge damage, and we just let it run off, evaporate and sink into the ground. And it’s a vast, unharvested resource. 8% apparently reaches our dams.
    We can learn from two communities. In Bermuda there are no rivers and dams. By law every home shall have an underground reservoir to collect and store rainwater. There is no municipal supply.
    And old Holland where every home had such a reservoir; reticulation came relatively late.
    So we built an underground reservoir adjacent to our home and for only two months in nine years have needed municipal water. It was relatively inexpensive, certainly cheaper than tanks, and very cold.
    We can rail against farmers and industrialist, but they provide food and jobs. I see in the future, most water will be reserved for them, and it’s up to us city-dwellers to get off our butts and start harvesting and storing the manna that falls in abundance from the sky; unless you live in the Karoo.
    If I was to do it again, I would make it 2.5m in radius, and 2m deep. About 35kl. It probably should be fibreglassed; expensive.

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    No, Ferrial. The government (if one can call them that) simply needs to enforce the National Water Act and NEMA. These laws make ample provision for managing our water resources and land-use development, but there’s zero enforcement. Look at what is happening with the uncontrolled expansion of macadamia orchards in the Lowveld. Glaringly obvious to all but the government officials. We’re so ******.

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