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The right to water and sanitation – “leave no one behind”

28 March 2019

The United Nations has dedicated the 22rd of March as World Water Day, in efforts to raise awareness about this vital resource and to encourage commitments by States that in the quest for water, no one should be left behind. January 2019 marked five years after the tragic death of Michael Komape, a 5 year old boy who helplessly drowned in excrement after falling into a pit latrine in 2014. The incident was sadly not the first to occupy prominent headlines exposing the shockingly unacceptable state of school infrastructure in South Africa.
Shortly before the death of Komape, in 2013, the National Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure (Norms and Standards) were promulgated. The Norms and Standards outlined legally binding responsibilities in respect of infrastructural requirements along with time-bound commitments for implementation. In line with the Norms and Standards, Provincial MECs are required to provide detailed plans to the Minister, together with reports on implementation for planned reforms. By November 2016, no school should have been without water and sanitation, and all pit latrines should have been eradicated. Today, around 4,500 schools still have pit latrines, and in July 2018, 23 schools in the Eastern Cape were still without sanitation facilities at all.
Tragically, in March 2018, just four years later, 5 year old Lumka Mkethwa from Bizana, Eastern Cape, drowned after falling into a pit latrine at her school, and in July of the same year, news surfaced that, 3 year old Omari Monono from Limpopo, drowned in a pit latrine at her school.  Public outrage, mobilised the intervention of the Presidency, the National Department of Basic Education (DBE) and its MECs to obtain an accurate national picture beyond those provided through annual reporting about the status of infrastructure in schools.
 While the majority of households in South Africa now have access to sanitation, still too many remain without this basic service. According to Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) approximately 3.1% of people in South Africa have no access to sanitation or are still using the bucket system. This figure translates to approximately 1.7 million people including women and children, the elderly and people with disabilities. A consideration of current conditions in the country involving frequent evictions and dislocation of people, the steady influx of people into mushrooming informal settlements, and large numbers of people such as undocumented migrants, who live outside the realm of conventional protections, this number appears significantly conservative.
Noting the call for urgent action by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC or Commission), as far back as 2014, the projections of current numbers of people without adequate access makes it clear that a call to serious action is non-negotiable and urgent. Such action must see more effective collaboration by local government when evictions, town planning and informal settlements are being evaluated for existing levels of need and for delivery. In addition, more effective intergovernmental cooperation is required between related national and provincial departments, including between the Departments of Education, Water and Sanitation, Health and Human Settlements. This cooperation would benefit from an analysis of historical and real-time monitoring information to project on immediate needs.
Delivery that does not factor in people participation is doomed to fail. This type of participation, is needed not only to better inform and improve the quality of delivery, but also to root out corruption. In the latter instance, the fiscus would benefit a great deal if people were provided accessible information through which delivery could be monitored and where service delivery agents could be held accountable for failures in delivery. The Rapid Action Plan being developed by the DBE is an example of a measure where planning could benefit from the sharing of information and consultation. The Commission has on this basis formally requested that the plan be made available for public participation and consultation, noting amongst other things, the scale of planning and the need for a holistic delivery of services.  Such participation, would include considerations around impact, as but one example, whether the use of pit-latrines for so long, with daily exposure to harsh chemicals used in these latrines poses health risks for users. What would also need to be considered are the steps to be taken to address these risks to ensure that remedial action is in fact “fit for purpose”.
In its report of 2014, the Commission highlighted systemic challenges around the lack of appropriate dedicated budget allocations, particularly for poor rural communities, in respect of water and sanitation at municipal level, as well as insufficient oversight and monitoring of expenditure and project implementation. The report was the product of public inquiries conducted by the Commission across all 9 provinces into the status of water and sanitation in the country. The inquiry revealed that most if not all of the affected areas were poor and mostly black regions in the country that had been disadvantaged during apartheid.
Invariably those who remain without access to basic sanitation are the poor and forgotten, for whom the realisation of the basket of basic guarantees in our bill of rights are out of reach. Delays in the provision of at least basic services to schools and informal settlements all over the country, compound violations to related rights such as health, education, privacy and - most significantly – dignity, on a daily basis. Where such violations persist for a number of years, the legacy of inequality finds opportunity to more deeply embed in our country far beyond 4,500 schools.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement in August of an intended rollout of a plan called the Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE), to eradicate pit latrines across all schools in the country, lacking proper sanitation, within the next two years, was heartening. More recently during the State of the Nation Address, the President reaffirmed the commitment, but increased the period for implementation by a further year.  The articulation of political will is promising but will require, according to an interim government report, approximately 11 billion Rand to roll out; a sum government hopes to raise with help from the private sector. While recourse to the private sector may be a viable option (and perhaps a necessary recourse given the role business must play in respecting human rights), an unequivocal commitment from government is needed. Anything less bodes poorly for those whose hopes of privacy, dignity and the simple need to use the toilet in safety are eroded on a daily basis, both at home and at school.  Given the constitutional responsibility to provide access to adequate sanitation, and judgements by our courts to the effect that efforts to meet the responsibility were long overdue, it is clear that the need for safe schools with access to adequate services is now urgent and reprioritising is required. This duty to provide schools which are ‘fit for purpose’, must apply with equal urgency in respect of learners with disabilities.
On paper, the South African Constitution expresses and guarantees all people the rights to life, human dignity and equality but the day-to-day lived realities tell a different story. The State should heed the injunction by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which urged the implementation of measures to improve school infrastructure and take immediate steps to ensure that all schools have access to sanitation and basic services; and safe infrastructure. This massive undertaking can be achieved by effectively monitoring, including through civic monitoring, consulting, planning, and budgeting to meet its remit as a protector and promoter of basic human rights. A key success factor in this process would be capacitating school governing bodies, school management teams, provincial and district authorities to monitor and report on needs in all schools. These opportunities to increase vigilance, prevent tragedies, and to simply ensure that no one is left behind would constitute important steps in restoring the dignity of our children and the vulnerable in our society.

Chantal Kisoon is the Chief Operations Officer of the South African Human Rights Commission.
Co-authored by Asenati Tukela, Research Associate for the office of the Chief Operations Officer.

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