Voices

Patricia de Lille: Access to water is a human right

2019-03-25 12:12

World Water Day was on March 22. This year’s theme, Leaving No One Behind, sought to remind the world that, whoever you are, wherever you are, water is your human right.

In South Africa, we importantly celebrated Human Rights Day the day before. Our country has had a long and troubled history striving for equal rights for all.

In 2017 and last year I was leading the City of Cape Town through an unprecedented one in 300-year drought. International experts contacted us, offering to come and show us how we could cut water use by 10% as had been done in other global cities. I was immensely proud to inform them that our residents had already reduced water usage by more than 50%.

It was these superhuman efforts at reducing consumption, without watershedding, and reducing leaks that allowed us to keep the taps running through the worse drought the city has experienced. Other towns such as Makhanda have been less fortunate – some neighbourhoods have been without water for 25 days.

Climate change is real and the traditional assured water supplies, such as rainfall, are less reliable. Each town and city must manage its water resources as efficiently as possible by reusing water where possible and using alternative supplies such as groundwater so that essential water services are assured. Desalination, although an option, is extremely expensive.

In revising our approaches to water use, we should not neglect our duty to our people. It is important to ensure equitable access to water for all. During Cape Town’s drought, officials proposed a temporary drought levy to be charged to higher-income homes that were typically using the most water. This was intended to cover the income shortfall resulting from lower water usage during restrictions so that we could still afford to supply water. This temporary charge was rejected in favour of a permanent pipe levy cost, charged to all homes, that was further compounded by steeply escalating water costs.

Community protests erupted across the city; with many citing the unjust high costs being imposed. Tariff charges assume an average of about four people per water meter. Lower-income neighbourhoods often have large families or shared premises, such as homes with people living in the back yard. Each water meter here serves many more people, meaning the water costs are higher (due to escalating charges) than in wealthier neighbourhoods where households are typically smaller.

Read: Day zero looms for Makhanda

Lower-income families also disproportionately struggled to afford the uniform fixed pipe levy and high water costs.

South Africans need to make the words of our Constitution a reality. It requires us to “establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights; ... [to] improve the quality of life of all citizens”. The right to water is a basic human right. We must ensure that access is equitable and just.

Three ways to do this would be:

  • To protect our catchments and remove thirsty invasive alien trees. This will increase water in our rivers and also create rural jobs;
  • To maintain infrastructure and reduce leak losses. Cape Town now has the second-lowest losses of any city in the world; and
  • To implement responsible debt management, so that those who can afford to pay do so, and those who legitimately need the support of our society and government receive it.

De Lille is the leader of Good

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October 13 2019