Time the state drilled down into water scarcity at schools

When an announcement was made that schools would reopen in June for grades 7 and 12 after they had been closed under Covid-19 lockdown regulations, the scramble to get water into some of the schools began. 

The country learned that more than 3 000 schools did not have water, and that water tanks would be supplied. 

Teacher unions had a list of demands they wanted met before schools could be opened. These included the provision of water. 

It was mainly schools in rural areas that were affected — areas that have not had running water for years. 

The government announced that an emergency fund of R600-million would be used to get water to these schools. 

But some of the tanks provided were just dumped at these schools and were not filled with water — this emerged from a story that was reported by the Mail & Guardian in June. Even now, there are still some schools with tanks that do not have a drop of water in them. 

But the lack of water and the inadequate toilets at many schools in the country is not something new. This has been a problem for many years — particularly in rural schools. 

And for years organisations such as Equal Education, Section 27 and Basic Education For All (an organisation that works mainly with schools in Limpopo) have long been highlighting this problem. 

I was in primary school in my village of Mt Fletcher in the Eastern Cape in the early 1990s and we did not have water. We fetched it from a river to prepare food for our school nutrition programme. 

To this day, that school does not have a reliable supply of water. Yes, sure, it has tanks — but no one delivers water to these tanks, and the school relies on rain to fill them up. 

In 2017, I was at home during one of the worst droughts the area had experienced in a long time and this meant the school tanks were empty. Just like we did in the early 1990s, learners at the primary school had to fetch water from the river. They still do when there is no rain.

In my years as an education reporter travelling across the country, I have come across a number of schools dealing with similar situations. In some schools, learners have to bring water from home. 

For how long will these problems persist? For how long will the rampant corruption in this country rob the children of the poor from experiencing a basic right such as water when they are at school? 

Why are we not finding lasting solutions to provide people with water — which will also largely translate into schools having this basic need? 

Sure, water tanks are okay if they are frequently refilled. Otherwise they are just large ornaments in the schoolyards. 

It was, however, encouraging to learn this week that the KwaZulu-Natal department of education has embarked on an initiative to drill boreholes at rural schools to ensure that they have access to water. 

Boreholes have long been a solution for many rural homes — for those who can afford them — in making sure that they have safe, reliable supply of fresh water. 

The department says this initiative will benefit 1 000 schools. This is commendable and it is an initiative that other provinces need to emulate so that learners in rural areas do not have to spend time fetching water from rivers instead of learning. 

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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