Defend Truth


It’s time for us all to get angry about water governance and management in South Africa


Tracy-Lynn Field is Claude Leon Chair in Earth Justice and Stewardship. Professor Field is an enrolled advocate and Professor in the Wits School of Law.

We are a water-scarce and water-stressed country, and the water that we do have is being polluted, mismanaged or privately hoarded.

I’d like to reflect on the role of anger in environmental activism, reasons to be angry about the current status of water governance in South Africa, and ways to become involved, to be accountable and to hold to account.


There is a fairly extensive body of research on the role of emotion in spurring activism, which has grown as researchers have studied how people respond to different affective triggers in climate change messaging. Fear, hope, anger and guilt are all “pivotal emotions” that can impact on activists’ motivations and mobilising strategies.

Emotions are not “simple levers” that can be pulled to trigger a particular response, they are only one component of a broader cognitive feedback system. But they are integrally related to mental health and can influence the agency people feel they do or do not have to respond to and address an environmental problem.

Anger can be perceived as a destructive emotion, but a number of recent studies have found that “eco-anger” is quite a constructive, mobilising emotion, more so than “eco-anxiety” or “eco-depression”, or even the hope for a better future. Anger has been associated with better mental health outcomes, and deeper levels of engagement with activism in a personal and collective sense.

Reasons to be angry

South Africans have so many reasons to be angry — the failed promise of a better life; profligate consumption and greed while many go without basic shelter, services or food; deteriorating public services as shock upon shock of natural and man-made disaster rains down.

Too often, that anger spills over into the most heinous acts of violence toward vulnerable people — children, women, the LGBTQI+ community, foreigners. We hardly need more reasons to be angry.

But we do need to become constructively angry about the state of governance and management of our very scarce water endowment. We need to move from anger that destroys to anger that protects. We are a water-scarce and water-stressed country, and the water that we do have is being polluted, mismanaged or privately hoarded.

And, as scientists are warning, El Nino is around the corner.

Commentators have warned that water shedding will be much worse than (energy) load shedding, with a far greater detrimental impact on water infrastructure and revenue streams for municipalities.

Unlike the alternative that solar energy offers to rolling blackouts, options for decentralising water from an abundant natural supply are far more limited (the efforts of the “borehole bourgeoisie” notwithstanding).

Water can be used and treated, but there are limits to the extent to which water-related ecosystems can renew and purify water. We are pressurising our water resources to a point where systems can tip, irreversibly, into a far less favourable state (ask users of the Hartebeespoort Dam).

We, therefore, have a common interest in ensuring that our limited water resources are used sensibly for human and non-human beings, for nature itself, and for future generations.

With all this in mind, here are three reasons to be angry about water governance in South Africa:

State failure

National government is failing in its role as custodian of our water resources, as provided for in our National Water Act. At the root of this problem is the failure on the part of successive ministers of water and sanitation to act on the mandate to institutionalise — to establish the prescribed range of representative and democratic institutions that would form the foundation of a participatory water governance culture.

At the same time, many local authorities (vested with the exclusive constitutional function to provide basic potable water supply and basic sanitation services), have slipped into a state of chaotic dysfunction, mirrored in the dilapidated state of their water treatment and wastewater treatment plants (as the re-initiated Blue and Green Drop water programmes attest).

Municipalities’ failure to manage sewage pollution, now greatly exacerbated by the rolling blackouts crisis, sets a cascading disaster in motion, with impacts on ecosystem health, agriculture, food security and tourism. Local authorities are currently probably the biggest polluters of South Africa’s water resources (although one should not exonerate the many unscrupulous industrial actors who pump industrial effluent into our streams and rivers or who leave sites in a condition that will generate water pollution into perpetuity).

That national government, as custodian, has not timeously initiated an emergency energy supply solution for water treatment and wastewater treatment plants across the country is a travesty.

Private greed

As water sources are becoming scarcer, private actors are hoarding water for their own security, to the detriment of downstream, less affluent users, and the rights guaranteed under the “reserve” (being the basic quantity and quality of water necessary to meet basic human and ecosystem needs).

Many of our environmental laws have been amended to allow for retrospective authorisation of unlawfully constructed facilities, creating a hoarding loophole. A perusal of Gace v Department of Water and Sanitation (recently decided by the Water Tribunal) provides a sense of the dynamics involved.

Criminal vandalism

In a similar way to which Eskom has allegedly become a site of criminal sabotage, but on a far wider and decentralised scale, water infrastructure is a sort of “commons” that accommodates criminal sabotage. By destroying or diverting valves or other bulk infrastructure, syndicates can force vulnerable populations to rely on water tanking or water vending solutions, at a cost far higher than they would pay for state-controlled water.

Ways to get involved

How then, do we start to come together as a collective to address the parlous state of water governance and management in South Africa? How do we mobilise our anger constructively to protect our most precious natural source? Here’s how we might start:

Become aware: Know the constitutional right to water and two basic water laws in South Africa — the National Water Act and the Water Services Act. Know what the law says about basic water and sanitation services. Ask your local councillor about the water infrastructure in your neighbourhood and be the local eyes and ears that can report damage or suspicious activity. Follow the debates on water services in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures. Initiate a debate.

Become involved: Become a citizen scientist and test your own water. Contact Outa’s WaterCAN project and request a test kit. Gather evidence and lay a charge at your local SAPS — water pollution is a crime in South Africa. Support or become involved with the many organisations working to protect South Africa’s water resources — Save our Rivers and Seas from Sewage, the Litterboom project, Alex Water Warriors, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment and Gariep Watch — are all working in this area, there are many more. Start your own organisation. Join a local Catchment Management Forum. Lay complaints with institutions such as the Green Scorpions (hotline 0800 205 005) and the South African Human Rights Commission (who recently held a provincial inquiry into the state of water access in KwaZulu-Natal based on the volume of complaints).

Use your citizen rights responsibly: Vote for a political party with a demonstrable commitment to taking water seriously.

Please become angry about water in South Africa. With this animating groundswell of constructive anger, we can halt the deterioration of our precious water supply. We must act, innovate and implement. Our future really depends on it. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted