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Water services authorities must be made fit for purpose

2022 Census showed more than 8.7% of households did not have access to piped water

08 November 2023

By Philile Ntuli and Peacemore Mhodi

All living beings, including humans, animals and plants, are constituted mainly by water and require water to sustain their existence.

The human body is composed of 70% water and requires sustained access to clean water to remain alive. Indigenous communities globally revere the divinity, femininity and fertility of water. In Zulu cosmology, water manifests through Nomkhubulwane, the goddess of rain, harvest and fertility. Recognising this, myriad international, regional and domestic conventions, including the constitution, affirm the indispensability of the right to water for the purposes of leading a dignified life.

Despite the centrality of water in leading a life of human dignity and the significant strides taken by the post-apartheid government in providing access to water, the 2022 Census showed more than 8.7% of households did not have access to piped water. Limpopo and the Eastern Cape had the highest numbers of households with no access to piped water, at 20.5% and 19.5%, respectively.

The lack of access to sufficient water impacts negatively on vulnerable groups, such as women, children and those with disabilities. In the context of lack of access to water, women and girl children regrettably become saddled with the task of collecting water from distant and unsafe sources such as streams, rivers and pools. Many lives have been lost during such tasks. Who can forget the loss of the young life of Mosa Mbele, who drowned in a river in QwaQwa in 2020 and the tragic death of Mudzanani Humbelani from Tshitomboni village, just outside Thohoyandou. The 25-year-old Humbelani was killed by a crocodile in January 2022 while doing laundry at Nandoni Dam.

The hardest reality to swallow about these incidents is that not much seems to be done by the government to ensure no-one should dice with death to get something as basic as water.

Several investigations by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) reveal some of the water services authorities (WSAs), tasked with water provisioning in terms of the Water Services Act of 1997, are to put it as crudely as possible, not fit for purpose.

The SAHRC has found WSAs in KwaZulu-Natal are in violation of residents’ right to access clean drinking water, as provided for in international, constitutional and statutory provisions. The SAHRC has also found that in Limpopo most WSAs are in violation of their constitutional and legislative duties.

The reports by the SAHRC indicate the violation takes place through the failure by WSAs to, among others, routinely maintain water-related infrastructure, plan and manage resources, tackle non-revenue water, exercise consequence management against those who perform poorly and ensure the water tankering system is not fraught with corruption, abuse, manipulation and commercialisation at the expense of those who desperately need water.

WSAs must be made fit for purpose, particularly given the crucial and direct role they play of providing everyone, especially vulnerable communities, with access to water.

In the context of South Africa being a water scarce country and ranked amon the top 30 driest countries in the world, WSAs should not be allowed to fail.

It is seven years before the lapse of the targets outlined in the National Development Plan (NDP) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The NDP and SDGs commit and enjoin South Africa to ensuring that by 2030 all South Africans will have affordable and reliable access to sufficient safe water and hygienic sanitation. WSAs are the centre of the achievement of this task. There is thus an urgent need to ensure these targets are translated into a lived reality.

An urgent intervention to tackle the slow pace in making access to sufficient water a lived reality is imperative.

This can be achieved by ensuring WSAs go back to basics. Foremost, WSAs should be made to function at their optimum by, among others, prioritising maintenance of ageing water infrastructure and the associated water losses, adequately and appropriately spending allocated grants and urgently developing, keeping, and maintaining regularly updated water service development plans.

Provincial departments and the national department of water & sanitation should play their part by enhancing support and heightening monitoring of the effective performance of WSAs.

In appropriate circumstances there should be no hesitation to take over the water services function from WSAs that are not fulfilling their obligations of water delivery.

The legislature across its different formations should vigorously crack the whip and exercise oversight to ensure commitments are adhered to. Institutions supporting constitutional democracy, such as the SAHRC, should continue to monitor the progressive realisation of the right of access to sufficient water in the country.

An active citizenry is non-negotiable. Citizens must, within the confines of the law, mobilise, be knowledgeable about their water management challenges and, when necessary, demand consequences for officials who are neglectful or are caught in malfeasance and wrongdoing.

Failure to attend to the basics will mean access to potable water will remain a dream for many people in South Africa. This cannot be sustained.

Philile Ntuli is a commissioner and Peacemore Mhodi is a research adviser at the South African Human Rights Commission

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