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Eiman Karar 
Water as a human right, what does it mean to South Africans?

As South Africa celebrates Water Week and Human Rights Day on 21 March 2014, we are reminded of what water access as a human right for all citizens means.

The Constitution of South Africa has placed a legal obligation on the government to realise people’s right to sufficient water.  In order to do this, South Africa has developed policies, strategies and institutions to manage water resources and deliver water services to people through local government structures. 

Although access to water has been included in our Bill of Rights, few people working with water-related issues understand the implications of a human rights approach to water, while those with a right to water also do not fully comprehend what is meant, particularly the most vulnerable and poor members of the South African community. The historical imbalances that have resulted in the spatial segregation and allocation of people and resources, respectively, is at the base of the problem; however, 20 years into democracy access to water as a human right is an important issue to unpack.

The generally accepted volume associated with the human right is 25 litres per person per day. However, we need to check if all citizens have access to this allocation. Does the country have enough water to allocate this volume to the population?

By 2001, a number of poverty-stricken households could not afford to pay for water. In response, the Government introduced 'Free Basic Water' to ensure that people’s human rights are honoured. At local government level, municipalities provide an average of 6 000 litres per household per month to households as free water. This figure is based on the allocation of 25 litres per person per day for a household made up of 8 people. Although the challenges of access are still real in some of our rural communities and informal settlements, the presence of this policy indicates that South Africa is serious about human rights.

According to Eiman Karar, Executive Manager at the Water Research Commission, many of our other constitutional rights also depend on water. The right to live a dignified life can never be fulfilled unless all the basic necessities of life such as work, food, drinking water, housing, health care, education and culture are adequately and equitably available to everyone.

For example, the right to life depends on the availability of water. Unhealthy water is the cause of serious illnesses, such as diarrhoea, which kill over 2 million people worldwide each year. The rural areas of South Africa contribute significantly to these statistics as a result of the poor sanitation services in some areas of our country.

The right to sufficient food means there needs to be enough water to irrigate crops or water livestock. The right to shelter is linked to the availability and accessibility of water from people’s homes.

“But perhaps the most important right linked to the right to water is the right to a healthy environment. If our environment and our rivers are not managed properly, there is no way in which people’s water needs can be met. The quantity of water can be affected by mismanagement of rivers on the one hand, and the varied pollution of our water resources by human activities, ranging from individuals to organizations, on the other hand’, explains Karar.       

The Bill of Rights also declares that all human beings have a right to a healthy environment. A healthy environment is one in which air pollution is reduced by plants that take up carbon dioxide and produce oxygen vital to animals and humans.  Also, a healthy environment is one where there are plants available to feed both humans and animals, and where there are enough animals for other animals and humans to consume. Thus our activities as humans contribute largely to us realizing our own rights which are enshrined in the Constitution and other legislation.

The water we depend on for our lives is provided by the environment we live in. The health of our environment affects both the quantity and the quality of water that is available to us. Without a healthy environment there will be no way that we can meet the basic water needs of people over the long term. Many parts of the water cycle need to be protected and monitored in order to ensure that we have enough water of sufficient quality to meet our basic and other water needs.

Jennifer Molwantwa, Research Manager at WRC says, “The right to water and the right to a healthy environment are difficult to separate. Without sustainable ecological practices, the availability and quality of water is threatened. To maintain a safe and secure supply of water we need to manage our environment in a holistic way: including managing our rivers, and looking at the impacts of our agricultural practices”.

Without careful management of our environment, we will not be able to meet the water needs of people in South Africa. We need river systems that work properly in a healthy environment, and rivers that are clean and healthy, if we are to supply people with their basic human needs.

Additionally, a healthy environment lies at the base of our ability to provide people with their basic water needs. It is important to remember and understand this, because while people have voices and can make loud and clear objections when their needs are not met, the environment has no voice of its own and can easily be neglected when there are pressing demands being made by human beings. However, if we neglect the environment we will soon find that we are in a worse position when it comes to fulfilling other human rights.

All South Africans have a role to play in ensuring better access to water which is our constitutional right.

More information is available in WRC Report no: TT269/7 entitled”Water as a human right, made easy! An introduction to a rights-based approach to water in the Sand River Catchment” which is freely downloadable from the Knowledge Hub www.wrc.org.za .

Contact: Eiman Karar, Executive Manager, Water Resources Management,  tel: 012 3300340 or email: eimank@wrc.org.za


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