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The civil rights organisation AfriForum submitted a plea to the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, requesting him to investigate the large-scale violation of the right to access to water and sanitation in South Africa.
AfriForum believes that the fulfilment of South Africans’ right to access to water and sanitation is seriously threatened by the extremely poor condition of South Africa’s natural water resources and the decay of water infrastructure across the country. For several years, AfriForum has been busy with various strategies and court applications to address issues such as the poor quality of drinking water, struggling municipal sewage systems and access to water, but because of the government’s couldn’t care less attitude, the problems are only getting bigger. If the Special Rapporteur were to investigate further, the government would hopefully realise the seriousness of the water crisis.
According to Lambert de Klerk, AfriForum’s manager of Environmental Affairs, South Africa’s water systems are on the brink of collapse. “South Africa is a water scarce country with very limited water resources, so the effective management thereof is vital. However, the evidence points to the contrary. For example, the Department of Water and Sanitation’s (DWS) own drinking water quality test results show that 51% of drinking water systems achieved a poor or bad microbiological status and 71% of drinking water systems failed to achieve compliance with chemical standards. Equally alarming is the fact that 334 municipal wastewater treatment systems were found to be in a critical condition in 2022, or that 46% of the available drinking water supplied to municipalities on a national scale is lost due to leakages in the distribution system,” says De Klerk.
Marais de Vaal, AfriForum’s advisor for Environmental Affairs, adds that, despite the damning evidence, it does not seem that the government is taking decisive action to resolve the crisis. “AfriForum is involved in dozens of cases where municipal officials do not carry out their legal obligations, eventually the public turns to the courts, a court orders that a municipality must take certain steps, but then it is simply ignored by the municipality. Or the court will order the DWS to intervene in municipalities that do not comply with their legal obligations, but time and again, promises are made, and second chances given, but years pass by without any improvement on ground level,” says De Vaal. “Ultimately, it is the public that suffers and that even pay with their lives, as the death of 43 people during the recent cholera outbreak demonstrated. Unfortunately, the cholera outbreak cannot be seen as a surprise because it is simply the symptom of a crumbling system.”
The plea to the Special Rapporteur is therefore an attempt to tackle the systemic problems that underly the lack of water management and service delivery. “If one looks at the whole picture – stretching from the pollution of fresh water sources to sub-standard drinking water quality, long lasting water supply interruptions, and discrimination in terms of access to water and sanitation – the enormity of the crisis becomes clear. It paints a disturbing picture,” says De Vaal. “To quote a former UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld: the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.”
The Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation is an independent expert mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to report and advise on issues impacting on the promotion and protection of the human right to access to water. The Special Rapporteur can investigate complaints reported to his office, conduct country visits, demand formal responses from governments and advocate for the promotion of human rights on the international stage.
Issued by AfriForum