District 10: South Africa’s Water Apartheid

After the policies of institutionalized racism and discrimination under apartheid ended in South Africa, it wasn’t an easy task to address and accommodate the needs of people that had been marginalized for over four decades. In 1950, D.F. Malan’s administration pushed out the Group Areas Act, creating designated living areas for non-whites, stratifying the people by race. Water was made more readily available for areas where white people were living, while 15 million living in areas discriminated by the government were without water and 20 million without ample sanitation. Upon President FW. De Klerk’s ending of apartheid, the nation had to deal with a multitude of backlogs with appropriately distributing water and sanitation to all of its citizens. 

South Africa has made attempts in enacting policy that would accommodate its citizens’ needs for improved water in the past several decades. However, its many attempts have fallen short as a result of a failure to fully depart from an apartheid and discriminatory mindset that held back its development during the 20th century. 

Water use in South Africa is highly dependent on water supply in natural sources, and is prone to fluctuation and uncertainty, with seasonally changing rainfall patterns, drought, transboundary rivers, especially from the Orange-Senqu River Basin, and heavy groundwater usage in rural areas.

While weather-related scarcity can prove to be a major limiting factor in getting people water, South Africa is the only nation that constitutionally backs the human right to water. Nonetheless, in the post-apartheid climate, leaders were slow to fulfill that constitutional right. It took some time, but President Thabo Mbeki led an initiative to promise running water to all households. This was mostly kept, but many households in rural areas still strive for clean water. As of 2017, 94% of the nation has access to water, but only 67% has access to sanitation. 

Any sort of policy prescription for the development of improved water systems in South Africa would need to meet a series of guidelines that address the socioeconomic differences among the nation’s populace that lingered despite the end of apartheid. The Water Services Act of 1997 created a system of payment for water and instituted flow reduction mechanisms to place a limit on the on the amount of water. The act seemed to be an effective solution for distribution, but placed heavy restrictions on the poor who were too impoverished to afford the water. In 2001, after a cholera outbreak, the city of Durban instituted a free basic water policy, which afforded each household with 6 kiloliters of free water per month.

Another program aimed towards providing access to poor people with a system of cost recovery still in place was the pre-paid meters in Johannesburg. These meters placed limits on water if it was not paid for, which prompted many riots in poorer townships including Phiri and Soweto. This system of free water was instituted with good intentions by the African National Congress throughout South Africa as part of their Free Basic Services, but provisions in the policy weren’t well thought out to cater to the needs of all of their citizens. The use of the term ‘household’ carries an inherent bias against large families which would not be able to accommodate their entire family on only 6,000 liters of water per month. They are also likely going to be incapable of financing the purchase of more water, so this is where we see the case of people turning to unclean water as their only alternative and they often get sick as a result.

With the growing issue to meet the increasing demand for water in South Africa, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project was initiated to construct dams on rivers passing through Lesotho, and to redirect water to South Africa. The project cost several billion Rands and resulted in an ecological disaster as a result of downstream flow reduction in the Orange River. The project displaced thousands of rural Basotho, often relocating them without accommodation. The flaws in the project can be seen clearly in hindsight, in a political climate dominated by an election cycle and a cholera outbreak. The dam was used to justify the expansion of the Free Basic Water program, which was quickly rolled out, and the need to increase the supply of water for South Africa. Thabo Mbeki pushed for this program with haste to leverage for his own political benefit, and the classist undertones of the free water program were left unabated, leaving a large proportion of the population without enough clean water.

In order to improve water development in South Africa, it’s evident that the ideal solution would be to adopt a holistic management strategy toward the distribution and conservation of water. It should specifically incentivize the efficient use of water in the nation’s agriculture industry and also implement policies that address class discrimination that come with the distribution of water. 

While the holistic management of water should be implemented throughout all aspects of the South African economy, it must be prioritized in the agricultural sector as it is the largest water user for the country. Over 15% of South Africa’s GDP comes from agriculture, and the sector is uses approximately 60% of the nation’s water supply. The agricultural sector’s farming practices should be mindful of water use while also refraining from degrading the environment with salinization, soil erosion, and the destruction of ecosystems. 

This would be an effective policy for South Africa given the agricultural makeup of the country. Only 12% of the country is deemed suitable to produce rain-fed crops, which means that most farmers cannot depend on rainfall to grow their crops and must resort to irrigation. Furthermore, only 3% of South Africa’s land is deemed as truly fertile, which speaks to the importance of ensuring that farmers are efficiently watering their crops. 

For this holistic management strategy to  help South Africa’s citizens gain equal access to water without discrimination, it should focus on the flawed distribution of water due to unmonitored water lines. South Africa has already made strides to address equal water access with the implementation of their Free Basic Water Access Policy, and is monitored by the South African Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (SADWAF). The policy entitles each household to 6,000 liters of water per month and people that go over this limit incur an extra fee. However, many of the rural areas of South Africa do not have water monitoring systems installed, so the SADWAF is unable to determine when a water line is broken for rural households. These broken pipelines result in large losses of water, and over 20% of all of South Africa’s lost water is due to communication issues with respect to broken water lines. 
This policy of installing water monitoring devices for all households in South Africa would greatly reduce the amount of lost water in its pipelines. While the government may be hesitant to pay the upfront cost of installing and maintaining these devices, this cost would quickly be offset since the country would be reducing its amount of water lost while also being able to correctly determine when a household exceeds their 6,000 liter limit and charge them accordingly. Furthermore, there is the opportunity of adding jobs as the government will need technicians to install and repair the additional monitoring devices. 

As opposed to some alternatives that focus on specific aspects of water distribution, comprehensively addressing the wide range of issues that mar South Africa, would help transition the nation to an economy that prioritizes the efficient use of water and a national infrastructure that adequately distributes and monitors water to all of its people. Keying in on only one problem can seem easier, but usually creates unforeseen consequences and can lead to more problems, so despite its difficulties in implementing, a holistic management strategy allows the government to be aware of social, economic, and ecological systems all at once. 

After assessing the problems that South Africa faces, it is clear that its water issues are not the result of one explicit shortfall, but rather a flawed system historically based on institutionalized racism and the discrimination of its people.  If the government really wants to solve these issues, there must be a complete overhaul of the current water infrastructure and government mindset which reflects the historic class division amongst its citizens.

Works Cited
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