Water shortages in SA are due to lack of foresight, not virus

File image: Kempton Express

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-oriented 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 SA.

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 SA that the Covid-19 outbreak had exposed pre-existing inequalities in South African society and acknowledged the government’s programmes should have included water being a fundamental human right.

Mismanagement at municipal level, which has been acknowledged by the department of water and sanitation, was highlighted, with Gear pointing out that “severe drought does exacerbate the problems”, but that most water shortages were a consequence of poor governance of water infrastructure over more than two decades.

In some cases, the problem was further exacerbated by local governments pumping raw sewage into rivers.

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”.

On the impact of climate, Gear said its effects were becoming increasingly visible, in the Eastern and Western Cape especially.

“You would have thought that we would plan, with budgets, for climate change. Put money into infrastructure and other investments,” Gear said.

“We have known for a long time that there will be fights over water. It would be a mistake to say that this is a Covid-19 crisis. We wouldn’t be here if we had planned.”

Payi said: “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 plans needed to be put in place for their maintenance and sustainable use by communities in need.

Gear suggested the management of the country’s water be centralised going forward, adding: “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. This problem is going to be solved by accountants, not engineers.”

The webinar ended with Amnesty International SA’s call to government to be transparent, accountable and progressive in its planning.

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