By Jeffrey Moyo
For South Africans living in slums crowded with makeshift homes standing side by side, residents battle to draw water from the very few water taps available.
Like countries the world over, South Africa is mandated to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030, but for many South Africans like 24-year old Thembisa Mzwakhe living in Diepkloof, South Africa’s populous slum area in Johannesburg, growing up in the shanty area with inadequate water supplies has become normal.
“I was born in Diepkloof, where I still live and like any other resident in the shanty homes, I still suffer the shortages of water supplies because we rely on few water taps set among homes where people come and queue for water daily for many hours,” Mzwakhe told IDN.
As if the water crisis was not enough, development experts note that South Africa also has inadequate infrastructure for providing sanitation facilities and encouraging hygiene at every level.
“South Africa has allowed shanty homes to grow in areas where it has not been easy for local authorities to render necessary and basic needs like water,” Themba Zwane, an independent development expert based in Johannesburg in South Africa, told IDN.
“The few water points that authorities have managed to put up in some cases have often not adequately met the demand of the growing populations in the country’s slums.”
Laden with a population of approximately 52 million people, South Africa has about 15 million of its citizens living in shacks, according to UN-Habitat, the UN agency for human settlements.
Although water is free in South Africa’s low-income areas, slum dwellers have rarely had enough of the precious liquid, a situation health experts say has left them exposed to disease.
“People who live in shacks here in South Africa are prone to diseases,” Buhle Khumalo, a nurse at a private clinic in Johannesburg, told IDN. “You would realise that without enough water points, many of these slum dwellers use bucket system toilets and this means a serious health hazard as long as they don’t have access to enough water.”
Historically, South Africa was hit by the consequences of the long-standing apartheid government system which ended in 1994, under which black communities often lived in crowded places without adequate water supplies.
But 22 years after South Africa gained independence, water deficits still haunt the country’s slums and this, say the country’s authorities, is a result of increasing rural to urban migration.
“Thanks to the increasing rural to urban migration here in South Africa, the pressure for towns and cities to meet water demands is increasing in the face of ever growing slum areas,” said Zwane.
Water supply backlogs in South Africa still persist, despite the end of apartheid. “Water infrastructure, mostly in South Africa’s slum areas, is lacking,” Mendisi Dlodlo, a South African human rights activist, told IDN. “Whether or not it is due to old pipes or ignorance, the South Africa water crisis is affecting millions mostly slum dwellers and there has been a backlog in services since the end of apartheid.”
Historically, when apartheid ended in 1994, an estimated 14 million South Africans had no access to formal water supplies while an estimated 21 million South Africans had no formal sanitation, according to the country’s Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF).
Terry Mutsvanga, an award-winning Zimbabwean human rights defender who has lived in South Africa, says that South Africans also have themselves to blame for water woes in slum areas.
“50 percent of South Africa’s consumable water is lost, wasted or simply leaking each year,” Mutsvanga told IDN. “So rather than having a water shortage problem, South Africa’s slums have a water conservation and utilisation challenge.”
If South Africa does not address the gap between water supply and demand now, the problem could worsen by 2035, according Dr Jakkie Cilliers, head of African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
With slum dwellers bearing the brunt of water woes in South Africa, the country’s Water Research Commission has been on record saying the country’s water utilities need to recognise that with the water distribution infrastructure in a continual state of deterioration, the replacement of water mains must be a continuous programme.
Human rights defenders blame South Africa’s post-apartheid government for fuelling the water crisis in the country’s informal settlements.
“Government here has allowed informal settlements to sprout without control,” Thembelihle Ndumiso, a human rights activist based in Johannesburg, told IDN. “Now, the same government is overwhelmed when it comes to ensuring that the slum dwellers have adequate water supplies; government has to act and make sure the people living in slums have the precious liquid.”
At the same time, the country’s government has met with insurmountable challenges in its bid to fend off water deficits across the country’s slums, according to Bheki Vava, an independent climate change expert in Johannesburg.
“In as much as government made attempts to end water woes in slums here, climate change has affected water supplies within the region as a whole. Rains here now come infrequently, leaving local authorities ending up not prioritising the informal settlements in as far as water supplies are concerned,” Vava told IDN.
Meanwhile, according to The Financial Mail in February this year, latest figures from South Africa’s Institute of Race Relations (IRR) put the country’s housing backlog at 2.1 million units compared with the estimated deficit of 1.5 million at the time the country gained independence 22 years ago, and this also adds to the millions of other citizens living in slums with limited or no water taps nearby.
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