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Jay Bhagwan 
Water scarcity –an unresolved issue in many parts of the country leads to protests over service delivery

Many people living in informal urban and rural parts of the country still lack adequate and safe drinking water which has led to several protests countrywide. A newly released Water Research Commission (WRC) study investigated selected rural and urban case study sites in the North West, Western Cape and Limpopo provinces. The study sought to deepen understanding of linkages between water scarcity and societal expectations for service delivery, as well as the dynamics between water scarcity and social protests.

When government has not met expectations, citizens have responded by blaming government structures for non-delivery of services and demanding better performance. Government officials in many cases have responded to this by disengaging from citizen groups or shifting blame, leading to increased frustration among citizens who have felt even more out of touch with government.

The result is a self-reinforcing cycle which leads to poorer deliv­ery, because officials are even less willing to communicate with the public or co-operate with each other. In addition, it has in­creased frustration within a public that sees long-standing prob­lems going unsolved. Finally it has led to disregard for the law, and in some cases violent protests by people rebelling against a system they do not feel respects them.

The WRC study found that Sannieshof residents in North West Province do not have adequate access to water.  The water infrastructure has not been properly maintained for years now. A particularly pressing issue, according to Sannieshof residents, is the need for a proper water and sanitation plan. Since 2007, the Sannieshof community has been experiencing water quality problems in their town. The quality of water in the area is heavily impacted on by unmanaged raw sewage. Although there were no laboratory test results to confirm this, many respondents stated that the Sannieshof oxidation pond has been highly implicated in water pollution of this area.

A respondent from Pelindaba in North West said,  “There are black elements in the water that comes out of the communal tap and the water is smelly sometimes”.  Other respondents from water services management institutions also acknowledged that there was a huge problem with sewage that seeps underground and affects groundwater in the area. However, there seemed to be a ‘blame game’ regarding who was responsible for the causing problem and solving it.

Residents from Pelindaba access water from communal taps or stand pipes. Pelindaba is reported to have three taps which service a population of more than six hundred households.  One respondent pointed out that there were ten communal taps but only 2 were functional. All respondents agreed that they had experienced a water point breakdown at some stage over the past year. According to one respondent, the system broke down as a result of lack of maintenance by the municipality.

Findings by this study also indicate that linkages between water services and protests are largely mediated through the type of housing residents live in. The type of house – informal settlements and formal housing – is a good proxy for the level of service delivery. Formal houses tend to have internal or yard taps and toilets as well as electricity while informal settlements are generally lacking toilets and electricity and rely on communal stand pipes for water supplies.

In the Western Cape for instance, there has been an exponential growth of the Khayelitsha population since its removal of influx control legislation in 1986 and attainment of political freedom in 1994. While there have been attempts since 1994 to provide formal access to water, housing and other services, the rapid growth of the population in Khayelitsha does not appear to have been matched by adequate provision of municipal services. Roughly 30% of households have yard and in-house water and sanitation facilities. About 70% of households are largely confined to the use of communal taps or ‘stand pipes’ for water supply and have inadequate or no access to sanitation.

“First of all, we don’t have decent houses, toilets, electricity and refuse removal. Secondly, we therefore demand to be relocated to an area where each of us has an individual serviced plot of their own, with electricity, water supplies, and a toilet, an area that can later be upgraded with RDP housing or better”, a QQ section resident in Khayelitsha said . “The first thing is that we don’t have toilets. We defecate into buckets inside our shacks. It is completely unacceptable for an adult to be defecating in inside living areas. The whole shack becomes smelly’’.

In Muyexe village in Giyani area, Limpopo, one respondent said “The development that we see here involves only the RDP houses that are brought to the village, knowing that the RDP houses are for poor families and also to close the disaster gap. Our problem, however is that we have no water. How can a person survive without water? It is an essential source of life. Even if people want to develop their land, due to water scarcity it cannot happen…”

In trying to cope with water scarcity women who played greater roles than men in fetching water from unprotected sources, spend more time at these water points, with waiting times often extending well into the night. This exposed women to a range of risks to personal safety and security. Risks were more closely associated with sharing unprotected water sources with livestock than with vulnerability to night-time criminality and injury by wild animals.

Several protests by ‘Abahlali Basemjondo’ in Khayelitsha have had no positive results  due to the fluidity of informal settlements, residents of such areas do not necessarily present themselves as organized communities with representative leaders. The inclusion of informal settlement dwellers in local governance and planning processes requires far more work than in more formal areas of metros.

This study found that in some cases water needs expressed and prioritized by communities were not similarly prioritized in terms of implementation and funding by municipalities. There were also discrepancies between population and water use data at all planning levels and ground-truthed data at micro-levels. In some case study sites, such as Sannieshof and Cala (Eastern Cape), respondents cited lack of institutional financial, technical and skilled human resource capacity as key constraints to addressing water scarcity and use.

WRC Report No. 1940/1/11 Report title ‘SOCIAL WATER SCARCITY AND WATER USE’ by Barbara Nompumelelo Tapela African Centre for Water Research (ACWR)

Contact:  Mr Jay Bhagwan– Director Water Use and Waste Management, Water Research Commission  083 290 7232/012 330 9042 email jayb@wrc.org.za

Standpipe in rural areas
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