Date: May 14, 2020

Water Wars Webinar: The solution?

Transparent, accountable and progressive planning with human rights at the core

COVID-19 must be a call-to-action for government, said experts during a webinar on the right to water, co-hosted by Amnesty International South Africa and the Daily Maverick.

“A solution-orientated concrete and workable plan is needed, and the government can start by being transparent with communication and information, accountable to the commitments they are making, and progressive in their planning so that equitable access to sufficient, safe and reliable water becomes a reality for all, even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Shenilla Mohamed, Executive Director of Amnesty International South Africa. 

The webinar was hosted by Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood. He was joined by economist Xhanti Payi and climatologist Simon Gear.

The panel agreed with Amnesty International South Africa that the COVID-19 outbreak had exposed pre-existing inequalities in South African society, and it acknowledged that the government’s programmes should have included thinking about water as a fundamental human right.

Mismanagement at municipal level, which has been acknowledged by the Department of Water and Sanitation, was highlighted with Simon Gear pointing out that “severe drought does exacerbate the problems” but that most of the water shortages are a consequence of poor governance of water infrastructure over more than two decades. In some cases, the problem is further exacerbated by local governments pumping raw sewage into rivers.

Xhanti Payi was of the view that “every time we have a crisis, we say we will fix it for next time. We should plan and prepare so that we don’t have to ask ourselves the same question over and over”. He added that it “should be about the science. We must stop being surprised by problems”.

The impact of climate change was also discussed with Simon Gear saying that this was becoming increasingly visible in the Eastern and Western Cape especially.  

He said: “We always knew that the environment was changing. You would have thought that we would plan, with budgets, for climate change. Put money into infrastructure and other investments. We have known for a long time that there will be fights over water. We know that we don’t have infinite resources, so what do we do? Now we will probably see cuts in all budgets. It would be a mistake to say that this is a Covid-19 crisis. It is a broader project. We wouldn’t be here if we had planned.”

Xhanti Payi backed this up by saying that “the main thing is to resist the temptation to provide a short-term fix”.

For example, the delivery of water tanks has been the biggest part of the government’s response to water shortages during the outbreak, but this must become long-term with plans put in place for their maintenance and sustainable use by communities in need.

Gear suggested as solution that “if we have to nationalise something, the tanks should be it. That would remove the temptation to steal them or divert them, because all the tanks would belong to government”.

He went on to suggest that the management of the country’s water is centralised going forward, as has been done during the pandemic, adding that “I do not trust municipalities to look after our water. They have proven that they are not able to do so”.

“The long-term solution is very boring. You must get accountants in to fix this. This problem is going to be solved by accountants, not engineers. Expecting small municipalities to run the system by themselves is not realistic.”

Payi agreed saying that there is an urgent need for the government find better frameworks for the future of water in South Africa, which must include structural, doable, plans with the right to water at the core of their thinking.

The webinar ended with the Amnesty International South Africa’s call to government to be transparent, accountable and progressive in its planning – not only for the now but for the long-term. By doing so, it will be closer to providing all who live in South Africa with sufficient, safe and reliable water.


​​​​​​​​​​​Amnesty International South Africa and the Daily Maverick hosted a webinar – Water Wars: Access to water in post-COVID South Africa – on Wednesday, 13 May 2020.

Watch the webinar here.

Sign Amnesty International South Africa’s Turn On The Tap petition here.

A longer write-up of the event first appeared in Maverick Citizen on 14 May 2020.


Mienke Steytler, Media and Digital Content Officer, Amnesty International South Africa: +27 (0)64 890 9224;