Water: Economic commodity or human right?

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A huge problem in the fight to provide access to all South Africans is that water is seen as an economic commodity, rather than a human right.

Access to water is a difficult task for many. (Supplied)

Large-scale agriculture, mining and other industries use most of South Africa’s water at a relatively lower cost per kilolitre than poor households. Water should not be a luxury, acquired by those with the right connections and wealth. For this reason, the commission has specifically noted that government needs to adopt a human rights-based approach to water.

South Africa is known for its progressive constitution, and makes several legislative and policy provisions for basic services. We have a constitutional right of access to sufficient water, a right to basic sanitation, a free basic water policy and a free basic sanitation policy at provincial level. However, on the ground implementation is often a far cry from the rights on paper. Private entities often control a resource that is vital to people’s lives and dignity.

Farm workers are often at the mercy of land owners when it comes to access, with water being cut off with no regard to workers’ human rights. The Association for Rural Advancement told the commission that workers’ only recourse when their water is cut off is through the law, and that although the law considers the denial of access to water as the same as eviction, legal proceedings are often slow. When farm workers approach the municipality, they are refused help on the basis that the issue is on private land. Workers thus find themselves in a legislative gap.

One Western Cape farmer complained that: “The richer white farmers have access [to rivers and dams] but the local farmers do not. Currently, the water boards are ‘white boards’ and reform is needed.” He also described how commercial agriculture wastes water through irrigation methods and watering during the day. In the Madibeng Municipality, for instance, local communities told the commission that they were forced to go without water for long periods, while wealthy companies received no water cuts.

No public service

A huge concern for the communities and civil society organisations the commission spoke to was a lack of communication from government. Communities are often not consulted on their needs and the report noted that “a lack of a rights-based approach to service delivery results in many inappropriate decisions by local government, such as the location of sanitation facilities along busy roads and unenclosed toilets in public spaces.”

In some cases, basic education on how to use toilets was not provided. A resident in the North West described how poor community members who had been provided with ventilated pit latrines were still using newspaper instead of unaffordable toilet paper. People complained about public servants who lack basic human relations skills and could not deal with people’s concerns. Economic inequality is exasperated by inequality in the access to water.

It is usually the rich who enjoy unlimited access to water, while the poor remain at the mercy of polluted streams and unreliable water sources.

This supplement was paid for and its contents and photos provided by and signed off by the South African Human Rights Commission.

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