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DEVELOPMENT: Report Details Toll Taken by Lack of Water, Sanitation

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Nov 9 2006 (IPS) - The 2006 Human Development Report, &#39Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis&#39, focuses on the ongoing problems that surround provision of potable water and sanitation. The document is being launched Thursday in Cape Town, South Africa, by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Global figures presented by the report&#39s authors are depressing: currently, more than a billion people are denied the right to clean water, while 2.6 billion do not have adequate sanitation.

"Each year 1.8 million children die from diarrhoea that could be prevented with access to clean water and a toilet; 443 million school days are lost to water-related illnesses; and almost 50 percent of all people in developing countries are suffering at any given time from a health problem caused by a lack of water and sanitation," the document notes.

"To add to these human costs, the crisis in water and sanitation holds back economic growth, with sub-Saharan Africa losing five percent of gross domestic product annually – far more than the region receives in aid," it adds.

Some have already voiced doubts about whether the study will make a difference in the lives of the poor.

"Most of the reports, like the one being launched by the UNDP this week, are done at the higher level. Those who write them don&#39t have a clue about how the poor suffer from water shortages," said S&#39bu Zikode, president of the Shack Dwellers Movement, based in the South African coastal city of Durban.

It was dark when Zikode spoke to IPS, but he could still see a hive of activity around a water collection point nearby. "There are about 20 people lining up to collect water in an open place right here, now," he said. "And it&#39s already late. It&#39s about eight p.m. (18.00 GMT)."

"These people don&#39t have the chance to collect water in the morning when the queue is long. They go to work and return late in the evening. They need water for cooking, washing, bathing and drinking."

Zikode and his neighbours are poor. They came to the city in search of greener pastures and live in Kenneby, an informal settlement five km from Durban. "About 7,000 people live here. They share five water-stand pipes (and) six toilets," he said.

In nearby Foreman, an informal settlement seven km from Durban, 8,000 people make do with two water-stand pipes and two sets of latrines for men and women respectively, added Zikode.

Durban, with a population of three million, has more than 180,000 shack dwellers in dire need of water, according to Desmond D&#39sa, head of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, a non-governmental organisation.

"People queue up for water from five o&#39clock (03.00 GMT) in the morning, some the whole day," he told IPS. "And the queues are long."

"Water is a big problem in the informal settlements, and so is sanitation. People are losing their dignity by depositing faeces everywhere. It&#39s unhygienic. The stench and the diseases that go with it are worrying," Zikode added.

Since October, he said, 18 people – including eight from one family – had died after their shacks caught fire: "There&#39s no water to put out the fire. Fire brigades take hours, and by the time they arrived you would have lost your property or even your life."

Yet, "Just across the road from the shacks we live in is a mansion owned by a family of seven. The family has seven running water taps and three toilets. You just look at the imbalance of the society. It&#39s unacceptable. Life is so unfair."

Such glaring inequalities are whipping up bitterness. "We fought together during apartheid. We all contributed to the freedom that South Africa is enjoying today. Unfortunately the majority of our people have been forgotten. Our voices have been ignored around the issues of water and sanitation," Zikode complained.

But during a budget speech delivered before parliament in March, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel said water supply infrastructure now reaches about 90 percent of South Africa&#39s population.

The Department of Provincial and Local Government says 165 water service firms currently provide 3.9 million households with free water.

"In South Africa every citizen has a right to water. This is enshrined in the constitution. And water is a hotly debated issue in South Africa. This is what it should be," Kevin Watkins, lead author of the 2006 Human Development Report, told journalists in South Africa&#39s commercial hub of Johannesburg, Tuesday.

The report lauded South Africa&#39s water policy. "South Africa has already legislated that every person should have a minimum of 25 litres of clean water each day." However, it noted that challenges remained with "informal settlements…not connected to the utility or where households do not have metres installed."

Zikode said people used to buy 25 litres of water for 30 cents until 2000. "Now we don&#39t pay for water. Our problem is how to overcome the lack of water and the long queues," he observed.

But, Orlene Naidoo – chairperson of the Durban-based Westcliff Flat Residents Association – believes the water allocation is just too small. The association is a community funded-organisation which helps the poor gain access to water and electricity.

"You can&#39t expect a family of eight, for example, to live on 200 litres of water a day. This is not good enough. The system is cruel. Brutal," she told IPS.

"If you have arrears they cut off your water. If you don&#39t have an income how do you clear the arrears?"

"We have not heard about the report," Naidoo said, in reference to the 2006 Human Development Report. As IPS spelled out the internet link where she could download the document, she added: "The poor don&#39t have access to the internet. They have no e-mail. They can&#39t access the report."

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