Date: Jun 3, 2020 By: Mienke Steytler

Give women safe water now so that future generations have a chance to thrive

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought pre-existing inequalities into stark light, in particular the right to clean and sufficient water. And, no, it’s not only due to the climate crisis, droughts and pollution. It’s mostly due to mismanagement of funds and corruption.

Amnesty International South Africa’s Turn on the Tap campaign, calling on the government to realise the right to water for all, has also brought into focus the full extent of the water crisis in the country and its particular impact on women.

Due to gender-assigned roles in many families, women are the ones who walk long distances to fetch water, they are the ones who cook, wash and clean with it. They are also the ones who keep their families and communities healthy with it, now more than ever.

So, as the world marks International Day of Action on Women’s Health today, highlighting sexual and reproductive health rights, it’s also crucial to underscore how lack of safe, sufficient and reliable water affects women’s human rights, that of their communities and future generations.

During our campaign, we have been collecting testimonies on whether people have sufficient water, how a lack of water impacts on them, and what measures they are taking to get hold of it.

We reached out to Caroline Ntaopane, WoMin African Alliance’s South Africa national campaign co-ordinator, after the alliance sent a joint urgent request to President Cyril Ramaphosa and ministers to address the water crisis, reported here.

The information we have received – and more is coming in – is mostly from women and is in the form of powerful stories of their own and their communities’ resilience in the face of extreme deprivation. It is also important to note that these experiences don’t only tell of lived realities during Covid-19, but of years, and often decades, of living with either very little or no water accessible in their immediate vicinity.

For example, eight informal settlements in the Witzenberg Municipality in the Western Cape, a reported Covid-19 hotspot, have been short of safe and sufficient water for about seven years. Somkhele, based in the Mtubatuba Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal, where more than half of the households are headed by women, has faced severe water scarcity for the past decade.

We have received numerous reports during the lockdown from all over the country of harassment by the police when women travel to collect water during the day, forcing them to wait until it gets dark to do so, putting their safety at risk. There was also a concerning report of a woman who allegedly lost her eye after being shot by a police officer using rubber bullets when she was out to fetch water for her household.

Women, some from QwaQwa in the Free State, have told us that their health has been affected as they carry heavy buckets of water over long distances for cleaning, cooking and laundry. Others told us that they have to rely on rainfall to have water in their homes and some are forced to travel to neighbouring villages, in contravention of lockdown regulations and risking fines or arrest, only to find the water is not clean and cannot be used.

According to WoMin, the water crisis has exacerbated hunger, poor health, poverty and, in some places, it has also increased the long distances people, mostly women, have to walk to find safe drinking water. Some women walk for more than six hours a day.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought pre-existing inequalities into stark light, in particular the right to clean and sufficient water. And, no, it’s not only due to the climate crisis, droughts and pollution. It’s mostly due to mismanagement of funds and corruption.

With 44% of water treatment works in poor or critical condition and about 35% of South Africa’s water lost to leakage, it’s not that the country has too little water, it’s that the country’s water resources have not been properly developed, managed and conserved.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous line.

Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink

could have been “Water, water everywhere, / Nor any drop to wash one’s hands, or cook, or clean, or keep one’s family healthy”.

Unless the government takes urgent steps to address this issue while it’s managing the impact of the pandemic, women will continue to bear the burden of the government’s failure to guarantee safe, sufficient and affordable water to all, with the effects rippling through families and communities.

This International Day of Action for Women’s Health, join Amnesty International South Africa as we call on the government to be:

  • Transparent with communication and information regarding which communities water is being delivered to, the distance needed to travel to obtain water, and how much water is being distributed per household;
  • Accountable to the commitments made, including ensuring municipalities monitor water levels, so that people have access to sufficient, safe and reliable water each day and are able to regularly wash their hands; and
  • Progressive so that equitable access to water becomes a reality for all, even beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

By being forward-thinking, the government will move closer to fulfilling its human rights obligation to provide clean, sufficient and reliable water to everyone, always.

It will also be protecting women and their communities, thereby building a South Africa where future generations have a chance to thrive.

Mienke Steytler is media and digital content officer at Amnesty International South Africa.

This article first appeared on Maverick Citizen.