Water crisis in the times of Covid 19

A Human Rights Outrage

Contribution by Bantu Holomisa, MP  
17 September 2020, Johannesburg  
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, access to water still a pipedream for the most vulnerable communities in South Africa

Thank you to our hosts for giving me the opportunity to chat with you today, about a topic which has been at the top of my personal and political agenda for many years.

  1. Introduction

With my work with the Champions of the Environment Foundation, my personal relationship, if you will, with water has had a lot to do with its criticality in terms of environmental preservation.

For instance, many of the projects that Champions undertaken over the years were around establishing indigenous forests and cultivating fruit orchards in rural communities to help with food security. Of course, without sustainable water sources, these projects would have been doomed to failure and we would be wasting our money and efforts. Simple as that.

From the perspective of my work with the United Democratic Movement, water and access to it, also takes on a socio-economic dynamic, where it is a human right, a constitutional imperative and a service delivery issue – especially at local government level where this competency resides.

  • Our relationship with water in South Africa

I sometimes think that many ordinary South Africans do not really understand how precious water in this country is, aside from some urbanites who feel inconvenienced when there are water restrictions.

For some, it is a question of buying another bottle of water and tossing the plastic bottle away, not understanding (or even caring about) the impact of that simple act on hygiene, in terms of waste management, as well as the impact on the overall environment.

However, for others, access to water is a daily struggle that involves in the worst cases, competing with animals to find even the dirtiest drop, or for the luckier ones, pushing wheelbarrows for long distances, to fill containers at the one pump in the village.

This massive gap between the haves and the have-nots is frightening and what is worse is that this is unfortunately not a new problem.

To give you an example of the work I do, we recently head-on confronted a case where a councillor in KwaZulu-Natal, who said he “bought” water from government, had it delivered to his home in an enormous government water tanker.

What is, however, most sickening about this situation is the fact that this councillor serves a community where there is absolutely no running water. How this public servant reconciles his actions with his chosen profession, I certainly do not understand.

In certain aspects progress have been made since 1994, but the backlogs and imbalances of the past have not been addressed. Almost no new water infrastructure development has taken place to cater for an increased demand on an increasingly scarcer resource.

Instead, far too much of our existing water infrastructure have not been maintained; from fixing the simplest thing like leaking pipes that supply water to a village or a township, to massive storm water drainage pipes.

  • Government’s management of our water

Vast quantities of water running through the rivers of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal ends up unused in the sea, so we have an available resource that we can utilise responsibly.

Looking to the future, and given the vagaries of climate change and the impact of desertification, there is also a clear need to increase South Africa’s current water storage and dam capacity. Because, supplying water to people’s homes becomes immaterial, if we do not have a massive supply available at any given time.

We could also, as a long-term strategy, look at importing water from water-rich African countries like Nigeria, Congo and Cameroon and have it shipped in, along the coastline. From our ports, separate water pipelines could be built to pump water to the dams and reservoirs in our thirstiest provinces.

Water infrastructure development must however be prioritised, and large investment is required, and it will have several significant benefits:

  • It can serve as a catalyst to stimulate agriculture and hence rural revitalisation in some of the poorest areas of the country.
  • It will lead to improved health for poor rural and urban communities, who are currently without clean water and sanitation.
  • It will stimulate business opportunities and create jobs, both through the private and public sectors, thus contributing to poverty alleviation.

Another simple tool that government can use to better manage the little water we have and, in the process, create jobs, is generating projects that address the silting-up of rivers and dams, as well as the removal of alien-vegetation.

  • Closing

Civil society organisations must spring to action when infrastructure development projects happen in our communities and we must help our people in checking that the work is complete and of good quality.

There is a need for us to educate our people about the scarcity of water in South Africa and, although climate change and environmental protection can be complex subjects for people to understand, there is not enough understanding around why we should be using water in a responsible manner.

Water is a more precious commodity than gold.

I thank you.

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