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And a river flows through it… but the water is undrinkable and the fish are dying

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When we look at the country’s municipal sewerage system, 90% of the 824 treatment plants releasing raw or partially treated sewage into rivers are close to non-functional.

Cited for global recognition in the provision of water and sanitation after the 1994 elections, South Africa will now be measured by new standards for a resilient water future. Not only is the country failing to meet some of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN for 2030, but there is also widespread concern over water service delivery nationwide, with communities in Gauteng, North West and the Eastern Cape bearing the brunt.

With the elections now past, people are still suffering from an acute nationwide drought of water service delivery. The question remains: can the elected elite implement long-term solutions with their short-term gains?

South Africa’s water-scarce label is no secret with its larger extent attributable to physical causes and further exacerbated by the impact of global climate change, climate variability and increasing demand on available water resources. There is still much more that needs to be done to ensure access to clean water for all – the simple, brutal fact is that human beings cannot exist without water.

Several reports and studies show that by the beginning of the next decade the country will face its biggest water crisis yet. When we look at the country’s municipal sewerage system, 90% of the 824 treatment plants releasing raw or partially treated sewage into rivers are close to non-functional. In Ekurhuleni, in the township of Etwatwa, while millions of South Africans queued to vote on 1 November, residents were queuing for water. Supply disruptions in the area left the community without a drop coming out of their taps for four days.

To make matters worse, the little water we do have is being polluted and wasted. To quote Bonani Madikizela, a research manager at the Water Research Commission, “we must regain our human rights to a healthy environment, freedom to swim, fish, irrigate with clean water, and access to dignified sanitation for all. Unless we urgently attend to these fundamental rights, freedom will remain meaningless to the suffering and marginalised societies of South Africa.”

Citizens need to know and note that the preservation of water is not the government’s responsibility only, but each person in the country must play their part. It is important for all citizens, young and old, to commit to safeguarding and conserving water resources in the country, not only for us to continue to live but also thrive during this critical period, as water is infused in our human culture.

It is easy to avoid this responsibility, but we cannot avoid the consequences of our actions that will have an impact for generations to come. Water is viewed much more than just wet and is immersed in our language – we daily use phrases like “go with the flow” when we cooperate, or “blow off steam” when we get upset. We “freeze up” when we get nervous and “make a splash” when we become influential and important. Water floated the Titanic and sank her at the same time. Water can be everywhere and nowhere all at once, seemingly static, modest, but alive with energy in certain pressured scenarios of anthropology.

Water is one word, yet it takes immeasurable structures and forms part of every moment of our very existence – it is involved symptomatically in everything.

Water conservation needs to be a part of our lives, and not just something we think and talk about only when there is a threat of it becoming scarce. We all need to understand the magnitude of this issue and work together to protect this precious resource. The question, in this case, is: what are you going to do to play your part and preserve water to build an inclusive, water-resilient future? DM

Zaid Railoun is a Project Relationship Manager at Morwakoma Matji Investment Holdings (Pty) Ltd in South Africa.

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