/ 2 February 2024

Editorial | Water: A matter of life and death

Cholera Outbreak In Hammanskraal In South Africa
A tanker delivers water to Hammanskraal in Tshwane. (Felix Dlangamandla/Daily Maverick/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Earlier this week, Rand Water executive Teboho Joala and his bodyguard were shot and killed during a back-to-school event in Zakariyya Park, south of Johannesburg.

Although they haven’t been linked, the killings add to the spate of violence related to water and sanitation infrastructure, concentrated in the crisis-gripped eThekwini metro in KwaZulu-Natal. At least seven eThekwini water and sanitation officials have been killed since 2022, amid an apparent battle over tenders.

South Africans are familiar with the seedy world that surrounds government tenders, as well as the violence it attracts. We also know about the kind of despair created by the interminable battle for more reliable infrastructure — and how, when our access to water is impaired, it can feel like a matter of life and death.

Just this week, residents of Phoenix, north of Durban, reportedly clashed with police during a service delivery protest over the area’s water crisis. A number of residents were injured, with one woman apparently shot in the face with a rubber bullet.

Footage from earlier this week shows protesters holding signs declaring, “The right to life is the right to water” and “Water is our life”.

Last year, the Mail & Guardian spoke to Joburg residents who had gone weeks without water, a problem that is becoming more common. 

Speaking during a virtual media briefing about the water cuts, Johannesburg Water official Logan Munsamy warned that the supply interruptions were creating “very hostile and unhappy communities”.

Although hostility is already fairly commonplace, there is a good chance that — in the wake of water scarcity and crumbling infrastructure — things are going to get a lot worse. 

In 2022, the Pacific Institute flagged a startling rise in conflicts in which access to water was a trigger. The US nonprofit noted the “growing threat of human-caused climate change is already worsening water conditions around the world, deepening droughts, enhancing flooding and disrupting water infrastructure”.

A year later, experts warned the United Nations General Assembly that given the deleterious effect of climate change, as well as a growing demand for water, disputes over this life-sustaining resource would continue to rise.

South Africa is a water-scarce country. Although access to piped water has improved significantly during the 30 years of democracy, crumbling infrastructure has left many without safe drinking water. 

This predicament has had fatal consequences in a place such as cholera-hit Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria, where residents have fought a protracted battle for clean water, drawn out by years of political backbiting and tender scandals.

If it hopes to avoid more death, the government (whatever it looks like after this year’s elections) needs to get serious about managing the country’s resources — even if this means depriving its henchmen of their kickbacks.