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Water Justice in the time of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic and the global responses to this crisis have exposed the world’s deepest inequalities. Social movements and solidarity-based organizations have a critical role to play in exposing the sources of systemic violence and in supporting the long-term measures to eradicate them. At the same time, marginalized communities are in need of immediate support to ensure their survival. It is time for all of us who have the means to focus our solidarity work to reach those who are at the frontlines.

The Blue Planet Project works to promote water justice around the world. We support communities in their struggles for access to, and control over, water and sanitation services. Over the last few weeks we have been overwhelmed by the horror stories from community activists living and working among the most vulnerable populations.

Communities fighting the structural violence of poverty and exclusion are made much more vulnerable by the COVID-19 pandemic. These communities were already living in a state of crisis and in many cases lockdowns have deepened their exclusion.

On April 3 2020, we hosted a webinar inviting members of three frontline communities to share their stories. You can read the excerpts of the presentations below or view the full recording here.

We have also set up a crowd-funder to raise funds that will go directly to the grassroots organizations mentioned below. Click here to make a contribution and please share widely.

The Water and Sanitation Roundtable of Valparaiso

Valparaiso is the second most densely populated region in Chile. Despite the tremendous wealth generated by a thriving tourism industry, copper mining and agriculture, the region has the highest number of informal settlements in Chile. In the City of Valparaiso, 22 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.

In December 2019, hundreds of homes in Valparaiso’s informal settlements were destroyed by wildfires. Nataly Campusano, Regional Councillor and member of the Water and Sanitation Roundtable, argues this tragedy could have easily been avoided if communities had adequate access to water. ESVAL, a private utility responsible for water and sanitation services in the area, has refused to provide water and sanitation for people living in informal housing, leaving them to fend for themselves when fires ravaged their neighbourhoods. ESVAL is primarily owned by the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan, which is currently the largest investor in private water services in Chile.

Nataly Campusano:
In Chile, there is no access to water for all because water is privatized. In December when fires ravaged the informal settlements of Cerro Roquan resulting in thousands of people losing their homes, we pointed out that this happened because people did not have access to water for basic needs let alone to put out fires. Now with COVID, we are being asked to wash our hands, but people in this region do not have water. The region of Valparaiso is in a general state of hydrological stress, which has caused forest fires. In addition to this we have ESVAL, a private company that controls access to water and refuses to provide access in informal settlements. With water and sanitation services fully privatized, the State has reneged on its duties

This is where the Roundtable comes in. We have been informing people of their legal rights. We have taken the company to court several times to expose their human rights violations. The company, ESVAL, refuses to talk to the public so we work by putting pressure on the state agency that is mandated to regulate private companies. We have lost many of these processes because governments and the legal system in Chile protect private corporations and their rights. But we have had some minor victories as well, including a reduction in tariffs after the fires. We have also organized strong public campaigns to make transparent the water rates, because under law this information is not open to the public.

In the context of COVID, we know that access to water is vital for fighting this virus, but nothing has been done by our president to ensure access to water to these neglected communities.

It is hard for us to keep fighting these mounting challenges on a daily basis. We need permanent change. People are structurally excluded and we need to change the constitution in Chile so that the law works in our favour.

Juan Pablo Espinoza, activist with the Water and Sanitation Roundtable:
We’ve just received word that the government will not be bringing water tanks to informal settlements. Unfortunately we now have to find a way to deliver bottled water to the thousands of people who are without access to water.

Michigan Welfare Rights Organization

The Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO) is a union of public assistance recipients and low income people. MWRO volunteers advocate and intervene on behalf of the members – victims of poverty – when disputes surface between this population and service delivery agencies.

As a founding member of the People’s Water Board, the MWRO has been fighting the city’s water shut-offs that have cut tens of thousands of impoverished households from water and sanitation services in the City of Detroit.

Maureen Taylor, President of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization:
The first line of defence against this pandemic is hand-washing. This flies in the face of what we are dealing with places like Detroit and Flint. It will be six years in June since the Flint water crisis. In Detroit, we have been fighting water shut-offs since 2014. These are attacks against poor people.

In 2014, when the Detroit Water Department announcing it would begin shutting off water, we managed to get a hold of the lists. We found 59, 990 separate addresses of homes that were going to be cut off in those first six months. It was quite clear from looking at that list they were all low-income, fixed income residents who simply could not afford to pay their bills. Many were elderly or single moms or disabled. There were children living in many of those homes.  

In Detroit, we have 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water just outside our door. There is no shortage. We need to see this in its political economic context.

At one time Detroit was a centre of auto manufacturing in the world. Blue-collared workers in Detroit were building cars for the entire world and were among the highest paid in North America. But today’s reality is quite different and the balance of power that workers once had has shifted. We have governments who are unwilling to feed and educate people who are not seen as productive to the economy.

Right now in Detroit, we have 10,000 people diagnosed with the virus. We have the third highest rates behind New York and Los Angeles. We don’t know how many of these people are lacking access to water.

We had a small victory when our governor issued an executive order to restore water connections throughout Michigan. We were surprised and thrilled, but now we are pushing governments to “turn it on and keep it on.”

Temma Kaplan:
The problem in Michigan right now is that the pipes are not working in many households that have been without access to water. The MWRO is fighting for longer term affordability solutions to get governments to maintain access to water.

Cape Town community activists

Koni Benson, Blue Planet Project and University of Western Cape:
We are now into week one of a three-week national lockdown. People are only allowed to leave their homes for medical reasons and for food. They are slowly making provisions for other needs like the collection of social grants. People were given a three-day warning, which was very challenging for many. The police and the army have been brought in to enforce these measures. Of the COVID-related deaths in South Africa so far, two people are reported to have died from the actual illness and two people have died from police violence related to the lockdown situation.

Like in Detroit and Valparaiso, people have been struggling for water for decades and it is part of a 300-year colonial legacy here. Some mayors have announced a moratorium on cut-offs, but that doesn’t help people who are living without water. Organizers have mobilized to get tankers.
We have invited three people who are on the frontlines of these struggles to share their experiences.

Axolile Notywala, Social Justice Coalition – Khayelitsha:
Khayelitsha one of the biggest townships in South Africa and is partially informal. I have been working with a social justice coalition that has been fighting for 10 years for clean, safe drinking water and dignified sanitation. The informal settlements here are on public land, so it should be straightforward for governments, unlike on private land where private landowners set up roadblocks, despite South African law saying clearly that governments still have an obligation to provide basic services to populations in informal settlements.

The services in informal settlements are communal, so lockdown is impractical in these contexts. One of the big settlements in Khayelitsha has 4,500 households sharing two taps. People living there have to travel 30 minutes to get water and it can be very dangerous late at night or early in the morning.

In this context, we cannot expect people to stay home, but people are now living in fear since the army and police have been brought in to enforce lockdown.

A COVID Action Network (CAN) was recently created bringing people from across Cape Town together. Now there are over 70 local CANs in neighbourhoods throughout the City of Cape Town. We understand that the pandemic is global, but we need to build solutions that are local to address our realities here.

We have been sharing solutions through social media to address the lack of support from the state. Government communications don’t prioritize most marginalized communities, so local leaders have been filling this gap – they been engaging in public education to make information accessible to people. We’ve translated technical medical language into local languages and communicated in ways that people can understand.

Naomi Betana, Water Justice Coalition – Witzenberg:
Witzenberg is an agricultural town. It is home to the richest farmers in the world. In the township and informal settlements where seasonal farmworkers live, we have been fighting the pre-paid water metres that the city is trying to install. They are threatening to take the subsidies or “indigent grants” that many people rely on if they don’t agree to have these metres installed. We are fighting to reconnect water and electricity to many homes that have been cut off.

We lobbied the Minister and got 10 water tanks to deliver water to homes without access, but in a context of lockdown we cannot monitor what is happening in informal settlements. We need even more localized networks of neighbours.

Faeza Meyer, African Water Commons Collective (AWCC):
Since 2014, the AWCC has been mobilizing against the City of Cape Town’s water cut-offs. We have been fighting water management devices (WMDs) that shut off taps after a free basic amount of 350 litres. We have found this amount to be inadequate for many working class households. We also work with people whose water has been completely cut off. With the coronavirus lockdown, we are struggling to get to these people who are the most vulnerable people.

The police have been very harsh. We wake up in the morning and hear them shouting and swearing at us through loudspeakers. But the communities are organizing anyway to support the most vulnerable. People who used to collect scraps in their trolleys for a living are now using those trolleys to deliver water to others.

People have just received their social grants and are able to buy food, so they are in a better situation at the moment. Initially, when they went to stores, there was nothing on the shelves. It is also difficult to survive on social grants without access to other income. When it dries up people will struggle.

We also have a situation where, in homes where there are no prepaid water metres or water management devices, the City deducts electricity which is on a prepaid metre. Without access to electricity, people are making fires to cook their food, which is dangerous.

We are being criminalized by the police who don’t understand that people are going out out of necessity. They are also preventing local organizing and solidarity.

Many of us don’t have ways of communicating with each other under lockdown. People in working class communities either don’t have phones or are unable to afford data, so we are organizing but sending messages over walls.

Suraya Scheba, University of Cape Town:
It is really important to get across that this crisis is historically layered. We’ve just come out of a water crisis in Cape Town where the City responded in ways that defended the interests of those who already had access and undermined the interests of those who did not. The City was more focused on its own financial resilience.

In terms of mobilizing and thinking about the future, we need to think about what crisis looks like for marginalized communities.

The community action networks have allowed more privileged communities to partner with less privileged from charity towards solidarity. We are not there yet, but working on it.