One hand
washes the other

Ronnie Kasrils
describes how partnership and participatory democracy in his country are exceeding targets for providing safe water and sanitation, and combating water scarcity and conflict

Ten years ago, the joy of liberation in South Africa was shared in many corners of the world, when the African National Congress (ANC) – after many years of bitter struggle – finally took the reins of government. On 27 April 1994, the people of the Republic of South Africa, black and white, women and men, stood patiently in queues to cast their votes. That day, and all that followed it, would not have been possible without the support of passionate and committed people throughout the world. What has transpired since in South Africa is as much an achievement of the anti-apartheid movement, that fought so dedicatedly for our liberation, as of the country’s people.

Ten years in the lifetime of a country is like a few months in an individual life. South African democracy is still in its infancy – and yet, how mature it is, and how well it has delivered to our people.

In 1994, it was estimated, around 12 million people did not have access to safe drinking water. Mainly in rural areas, they had to fetch their water from springs, from distant rivers, or – if lucky – from distant wells and boreholes. Rural women were condemned to spend many hours of their precious days walking to fetch water. Some faced the daily terror of crocodile-infested rivers. On the other side of the fence, of course, white South Africans had services equal to the best in Europe – full flush toilets, baths and taps and showers aplenty, and even a plethora of swimming pools. There were two worlds in one country.

The new Government recognized water’s primacy in the struggle for dignity and well-being. The South African Constitution recognizes this, too, guaranteeing the right of access to sufficient water. Water is, after all, a basic human right, fundamental to life. On this basis, the Government began a major programme, which ten years later has brought safe drinking water to almost 10 million people – mostly at communal taps no more than 200 metres from their households. This is a remarkable achievement, testimony to the commitment and creativity of hundreds of people in the Government, the private sector and non-governmental organizations which have worked tirelessly to make it a reality.

The gender struggle in our country has been integral to this process. Frances Baard, a wonderful and powerful woman, a leader in the trade union movement and in the ANC, once said: ‘We know that there is no freedom which can be for the men without the women.’ Under apartheid, black women in South Africa faced the triple burden of race, gender and class discrimination. Possibly the greatest challenge is to ensure that women are enabled to take their rightful place alongside men, as equal partners in the drama of life. Innumerable women have now been liberated from the drudgery and labour of fetching water over long distances; many more have been freed from the agony of nursing family members made ill by poor water and lack of hygiene. Women have been enabled to carry themselves with pride as members of water committees, as labourers on water projects, as citizens of South Africa.

Up the water ladder
The Millennium Development Goals have set the target of reducing the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water by half by 2015. South Africa is already ahead of its target and well on the way to ensuring that everyone has access to safe drinking water. Still, the latest census figures show, we have some way to go. At least 5 million people are still getting water from unacceptable sources. By 2008 we will have delivered water to them too. But we have also recognized that this is not enough, and have set even more ambitious goals. We now need to begin to upgrade the service to those who have been provided with it, to increase the amount of water available to households, to bring it closer than 200 metres. We need to move our people up the water ladder, to improve the services that we can provide. This is a major challenge that will keep us occupied for many years to come.

At various points, it became important for South Africans to stop and reassess what they were doing. The first real challenge was a severe cholera outbreak. Although interventions by the Government managed to keep deaths to a minimum, it forced the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry to reconsider its strategy. Providing clean water was clearly not enough to prevent the disease from breaking out.

Rude awakening
Buoyed up by international support and local expertise, South Africa now moved more strongly into the field of sanitation provision – and began a major health and hygiene campaign. ‘Water, sanitation and hygiene’ became the country’s slogan – shortened to WASH! This programme has been championed in international forums as well as in South Africa. With the cry: ‘Sanitation is dignity', a campaign was launched to bring basic sanitation to the 20 million South Africans lacking it.

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg last year, the world finally agreed a target of reducing the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by half by 2015. Once again, we have set far more ambitious targets: relying on donor support, South Africa intends to eradicate its backlog by 2010.
So far, about three quarters of households with access to safe drinking water are receiving free basic water
A rude awakening posed a second challenge to me and my department when I was visiting a water scheme put into a rural village. A woman, a baby tied to her back, was digging a hole for water near the bank of the river. I asked why she was not using the new tap; she answered that she could not afford it. This event inspired a free basic water policy, which allows households 6,000 litres per month free of charge. So far, about three quarters of households with access to safe drinking water are receiving free basic water, and the proportion is going up all the time. The Government regards it as a mockery of the Constitution – guaranteeing the right of access to sufficient water – and an insult to the people to put in water schemes and then prevent people from using them by charging an unaffordable price.

Water is a scarce commodity in South Africa. Those who know the country well may remember the beauty of the sun rising over the ancient koppies of the Karoo, the bite of the winter chill hanging between the sparse scrub, the vast expanse of cloudless sky rising above the endless landscape. It is a land of inestimable beauty, but is mostly arid. Most of the country’s water falls in the east, in the foothills and majestic mountains of the Drakensberg, over the humid hills of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga.

South Africa also inherited water pollution problems from its industrial and mining heritage. Abandoned mines continue to release polluted water into the rivers; lack of sanitation causes high bacterial pollution in some areas; industrial pollution is a continual challenge.

Designing the future
Faced with all this, South Africa has developed what is regarded as one of the most progressive pieces of water legislation in the world – and a blueprint for water security – the first ever National Water Resources Strategy. It is a remarkable piece of work, more so since the Government consulted widely with the people of South Africa on the document, with nearly 2,000 responding with detailed comments. The tradition, started with the ANC’s Freedom Charter back in 1955, of asking South Africans to contribute to designing their own future, lives on in participatory democracy today.

Shared rivers form one element of the blueprint. South Africa shares most of its major rivers with neighbouring states, in some cases with three others. These are not big rivers by international standards, with more than enough water to spare, but are already under stress, and must be managed with care and sensitivity to meet the needs of all parties.
With the cry: ‘Sanitation is dignity’, a campaign was launched to bring basic sanitation to the 20 million South Africans lacking it
The spirit of internationalism lives in our water legislation. The Government has a ratified and effective Protocol on Shared River Basins. The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry recently signed the Incomaputo agreement with Mozambique. As a result, South Africa is able to release downstream the amount of water agreed with Mozambique during the current drought in the Inkomati basin. It is a remarkable symbol of mutual cooperation, preventing water wars, and ensuring mutual growth and sharing.

Seeking partnerships
Major challenges, however, still face the Government. Water still has to be delivered to 5 million people, sanitation to 16 million. The quality of the basic services that the state is providing must continually be improved. Government must upgrade, maintain and refurbish ageing infrastructure, and invest in new dams, water-treatment works, major pipelines, pump stations. We have a clear position that the private sector has a key role to play in the delivery of services to our people. Government cannot and will not abdicate from its function to ensure that these are delivered, but recognizes that it cannot do it alone. The investment and capacity that the private sector can offer is essential to future success.

South Africa has come a long way, but the struggle is not yet over. Support is needed in mobilizing funds, whether from individuals or from institutions, for the delivery of services and for long-term maintenance. A South African saying, ‘Izandla ziyangezana’ (one hand washes the other one), articulates the need to help one another. This is an expression of partnership. Just as we needed international support and unity in the struggle against apartheid, so we seek such partnerships today

Ronnie Kasrils is Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, the Republic of South Africa.

PHOTOGRAPH: Racine Keita/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Action for tomorrow | Turning words into action | One hand washes the other | People | Fragile resource | Realizing the dream | Washing away poverty | At a glance: Water and sanitation | Music makes magic – Angélique Kidjo | Targeting sanitation | In a city like Mumbai | Flowing from the bottom up | Books & products | Watering a thirsty land | Peace through parks | Reaching the unheard

Complementary issues:
Water, 1996
Freshwater, 1998
The Environment Millennium, 2000
WSSD, 2002
Freshwater, 2003