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The South African Human Rights Commission reviews progress in implementing the human right to water

The South African Human Right Commission, which has an independent status specified in chapter 9 of the constitution, is holding hearings on water and sanitation in the country’s nine provinces, which will culminate in a national event at the end of 2012. Findings will be presented to Parliament and will be taken forward by the Commission. Many civil society organisations are sceptical about this making any change, but they also feel compelled to participate in what is open to them and part of the democratic process. What can be said? This is what I said at the water and sanitation hearing in KwaZulu Natal:

In July 2010 the UN Generally Assembly passed a resolution recognising people’s right to water and sanitation. The South African constitution says that people have the right to access to water. But is this being implemented in South Africa?

This hearing is being held out of respect and concern for South Africa’s people who are experiencing a range of hardships and struggles as a result of issues in our water and sanitation systems. It is important to say at the outset that these sorts of processes, while presumably well intended, often go through the motions of consultation and result in little if any change. Having people’s participation inform change has not succeeded. So for this day to truly show respect to people, the Human Rights Commission needs to ensure that it results in real action to change existing systems and challenge power structures supporting this status quo.

In the 1990s we started with replacing “wrong policies” with ones that are exemplary and inserting “community water” into an engineer and dam driven DWA under apartheid. Then there was a push to hit ambitious targets through a mass rollout of water systems. This did deliver to many people… and allowed the government to tick the delivery box and even claim to have met the MDG of halving the proportion of people with access to water. Did it mean people had access to water? No.
Today we will/ are hearing about a host of problems with access to water:

  • No access to water, no water systems… farmworkers, people living next to dams.
  • Lack of maintenance by municipalities means that many water systems have stopped working.
  • Unaffordable water due to high tariffs and painful cost recovery attempts (led to cholera outbreak), and incorrect billing leading to bills in the tens of thousands, confusion and poor application of Free Basic Water, costs rising because of new bulk systems
  • Irregular supply, cut off for months and reliant in tankers with notorious problems.
  • Not able to access enough water through standpipes far from home, particularly for care for ill, for health and hygiene to prevent disease
  • Pollution of our water supplies by poorly regulated industries and by our own failure to provide sanitation
  • VIPs that are “full up” and huge backlogs in sanitation
  • And that people face unresponsive local government that claims to communicate through ward committees and consult through IDPs and consumer hotlines.

We call on government to listen to the growing sense of despondency and powerlessness:

“We do not believe that anything will change now or in the future. When there are problems, we make sure we report them, but we do not expect much.” Etete community member, Illembe District Municipality

“We have decided to live as we did in the past life when we did not have any water. We are not getting anything from our government and the municipality keeps on promising through the councillor. The izinduna calls only imbizos and no service delivery meetings” Umthimude community member, Ugu District Municipality

Anger and frustration around a lack of service delivery explodes in other ways: South Africa has highest number of protests per capita in the world.

The only way that we can turn around the despondency and the anger is by addressing these issues… and the problem sits with municipalities that are not coping or responsive to people. Around the time of the protests, COGTA identified “basketcase municipalities” that are dysfunctional—and initiated a Turnaround Strategy. After some noise of deploying a special purpose vehicle form the national level that would work with these municipalities over six months or so, we heard nothing more. It seems that the turnaround was 360 degrees, they turned around and around and are back where they started.

If municipalities are not fulfilling their responsibilities, COGTA and DWA must remedy the situation. The National Water Act and the constitution must be used to invoke emergency powers and step in. People are hostage to poor governance, it compromises not only their right to water and sanitation but also their rights to dignity.

After six years of research and discussion by a multi-stakeholder Water Dialogues, agreed on a number of recommendations, I will highlight three key ones:

  1. Inadequate funding for operations and maintenance. Need to ensure equitable share is actually used on water and sanitation. Overall attention to poorly functioning municipal financial systems.
  2. Lack of critical skill and competencies, and strong leadership. Need attention to training– And to recruitment, selection, and retention of staff.
  3. Poor regulation at national and local levels (differentiating between Water Services Authorities as regulator of Water Services Provider exists on paper only in most municipalities and is completely ineffective in practice as they are the same people filling both roles). Performance agreements for all water services provider need to be in place so that they can be held to account. DWA need to do national regulation of municipal tariffs.
  4. Lack of ethos and practice of participation, and accountability. Officials from municipalities and other levels of government often have a dismissive and condescending attitude to the very local people they are meant to serve. This requires a paradigm shift: we need to attend to how we work not just what we do! Officials need to hear—and listen to– a range of voices. There needs to be space for processes of grassroots participation, not treated as an optional extra! Public education about water and sanitation is needed so that people can engage and hold officials accountable. Charters between citizens and municipalities are needed.

Is it a matter of not knowing? Through Water Dialogues we know that top sector leaders, municipal leaders, communities are well aware of these issues. Nothing I have said is news to anyone. So why are we in this situation. No one is taking responsibility for the depth of what is needed. There is not political will. The channels of accountability are not working.

We call on the Human Rights Commission, through its mandate to monitor government promotion of our citizens socio-economic rights, to not only hold hearing and produce a glossy report, but also to move out of its comfort zone and actively pursue these systemic issues.