Why we need a report on water and sanitation

Many residents in townships and rural areas do not have access to adequate water supplies and toilet facilities. (Supplied)

Many residents in townships and rural areas do not have access to adequate water supplies and toilet facilities. (Supplied)

Government has provided flattering statistics regarding the realisation of the right to water, with Stats SA noting that 91.3% of South African households have access to piped water. Lurking behind the statistics, however, is the fact that 73.4% of households have “piped water inside their dwelling or yard” and 17.9% have “piped water outside their yard.”

This means that more than a quarter of South Africans don’t have “household access” to water at all. In 2012, the presidency’s monitoring body found that South Africa is still not adequately providing water and sanitation to its poor and indigent citizens. In fact, approximately 1.4-million households still need to be provided with basic sanitation.

SAHRC report

The South African Human Rights Commission has released a report on the right of access to water and sanitation in South Africa. This report titled: “Water and Sanitation, Life and Dignity: Accountability to People who are Poor”, is dedicated to Michael Komape(6) of Chebeng in Limpopo who fell into a pit toilet at his school and died, all those injured or killed during popular protests and many South Africans who struggle to live a dignified life.

The report revealed a number of alarming findings. Notably that in many provinces, there is still a lack of access to any form of water or sanitation infrastructure, while in some cases there was access to infrastructure that was never operational and others where people had access to broken, inoperable infrastructure. The report found provincial “hotspots” of complete non service delivery. It was found that these hotspots were the same desperately poor and mostly black regions that were disadvantaged under the apartheid era.

These historical homelands suffer the same lack of delivery and corruption they did 20 years ago. Problems related to water services include a lack of funding, poor revenue collection, a lack of technical, management and business skills in the sector, political interference, corruption and unclear municipal powers and functions. Without adequate sanitation facilities, people will continue to face the indignity and violence of poverty. A lack of water also impacts other human rights, including the right to dignity, education, health, safety and the environment.

Right to Dignity and Equality Women, children and people with disabilities and the LGBTI community are also disproportionally affected by a lack of access to water and sanitation and exposure to violence. In rural communities, for instance, women are required to walk into the bushes to relieve themselves. This exposes them to the risk of violence or rape. The commission has heard many instances where women were raped and killed while away from their homes. The bucket system, carrying water to homes from a remote dam or river or water source, also exposes women to danger.

With no working toilets and running water in schools, girls cannot properly dispose of sanitary pads. They often stay away from school once a month, which affects their education. People with disabilities also face particular challenges. Toilets are often not built wide enough to allow wheelchair access or assistance from another person. Some toilets are placed on uneven terrain far away from the person’s home. This impacts heavily on people with disabilities’ right to dignity. While government has said people with disabilities can apply for specific housing when it comes to water and sanitation, very few people knew of this provision.

Lack of accountability

Another issue cited in the report was lack of inter-governmental cooperation across spheres and departments of government to ensure delivery of rights to water and sanitation. The report noted systemic failures and a lack of skills and capacity to implement their mandate of providing access. Municipalities are the first port of call, and must “progressively ensure efficient, affordable, economical and sustainable access to water”.

People should be able to access information from their local government without submitting a Promotion of Access to Information request. Provincial government must support municipalities in fulfilling their functions and must intervene where there are failures. The issue of transparency remains a huge hurdle when it comes to South Africans intersecting right to information. At a local level, municipalities are the first port of call, and must “progressively ensure efficient, affordable, economical and sustainable access to water”.

Moreover, people should be able to access information from their local government without submitting a Promotion of Access to Information request. The issue of transparency remains a huge hurdle when it comes to South African’s intersecting right to information. The issue of accountability is pivotal. The commission has found that submitting its monitoring reports to Parliament has not been effective. Relevant ministries and departments need to be held to account. The fact that more than 80% of local government institutions are still not complying with the commission’s findings is a huge concern. Tabling reports with no resulting action is a waste of South Africa’s money.

For this reason the commission undertook an approach of liaising directly with relevant government departments by sharing draft recommendations with them in 2013. Departments that did not provide substantive responses to such recommendations were called to a subpoena hearing and further round table discussion.

In this way, there is a more direct commitment from government to implement recommendations, with time frames being drawn up and performance being monitored. In terms of funding, it is estimated that an amount of R44.75-billion is needed to provide basic services to the unserved and to upgrade existing infrastructure. This sum will be partly covered by the R41-billion grant to municipalities in 2011/12.

Millennium Development Goals

Government agreed to the UN Millenium Development Goals that were drawn up in the year 2000. One of these is to reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water. This would be measured by the proportion of the population with sustainable access to an improved water source in urban and rural area as well as those with improved sanitation. While these goals are likely to be achieved by 2014, universal access remains unlikely.

This means that many marginalised and impoverished communities might still have low or non-existent access. The poorest people in the country will continue to remain vulnerable and their situation will decline. The task at hand is huge, but one that must be tackled. There is nothing more basic to human dignity than the ability to have clean water to drink and the use of a toilet that is hygienic and safe. It is a right that so many privileged individuals take for granted, but that is still central to the struggle of the poor people of our country.

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