South Africa’s Water Woes Echo Global Problems


June’s winter Westerlies are pelting Cape Town, but beyond the peaks of the Overberg, most of the country is experiencing South Africa’s typical rainless winter. It’s 6 a.m., and our canvas-topped 4x4 lurches through KwaZulu-Natal in search of wildlife. As the sun brightens, we encounter rare white rhinos, giraffes, and a trio of hyenas snacking on a roadside carcass.

“These streambeds used to be wet this time of year,” our driver says. “No longer. That’s why we started building small dams like the one ahead.” As we round a curve, he kills the engine and rolls to a stop. We stare at the reservoir. It’s bone dry.

This is serious, he tells us. “A few years before, another drought swept the reserve and tens of thousands of wildlife died.”

It’s not just wildlife that’s in danger. South Africa’s celebrated campaign to provide free, universal access to “water as a human right” is also at risk. Drought is only one problem. South Africa’s resource revolution also faces increasing pressure from another threat – privatization.

Mineral-rich but water-poor South Africa lacks major aquifers. It averages 19.6 inches of rain a year (about half the world average). All of the country’s major rivers are dammed. So when the African National Congress (ANC) promised Free Basic Water to all after winning the country’s first all-race election in 1994, the world took notice.

Today, water access has been extended to 8 million of the country’s 13 million water-poor residents. The ANC matched its promise to “provide all residents with a free basic amount of water, electricity and other municipal services” by installing thousands of collective pumps to assure access to 25 liters of water a day within 200 meters of home – a boon to women who used to haul water miles from distant wells.

The Apartheid-era system that reserved water access for the rich was replaced with new water-licensing arrangements designed to promote social progress and favor “emerging black farmers.” This was in keeping with the new Constitution’s egalitarian principle: “Some for all, not all for some.” But such progressive policies were at odds with the World Bank’s goal of promoting water commercialization. Before passage of South Africa’s revolutionary Water Services Act of 1997, the Bank privately advised South Africa’s Water Minister Kader Asmal to abandon the lofty concept of water as a “right.” Instead, the Bank advised the ministry to commodify water using a “credible threat of disconnections.”

Undeterred, in July 2001, the Department of Water Affairs announced a Free Basic Water policy that promised every citizen 25 liters (6 gallons) of water per day. (Daily per capita use in the US tops 80 gallons.) But, under the influence of the French water conglomerate Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, many towns instituted a pricing scheme that offered households 6,000 free liters of water per month (even if there were eight in the household). Use one drop over the threshold and the price soared. Hence the phrase “water apartheid.”

Richard Mokolo of the Orange Farm Crisis Water Committee calls privatization “a new kind of apartheid. Apartheid separated whites from blacks; privatization separates the rich from the poor. The government promised us that water is a basic right. But now they are telling us our rights are for sale.”

When citizens refused to pay for excess water, authorities resorted to disconnections. Community activists responded by reconnecting pipes. When the municipalities installed state-of-the-art “pre-paid water meters,” the meters were attacked by township residents.

With growing demand exceeding reserves, providing water to homes will mean reducing flow to farms. But this presents a racially tinged political problem, since most of the large farm-owners are white. Meanwhile, the Lesotho Highlands Project – an Apartheid-era plan that is using megadams and pipelines to tap the snow-fed resources of the water-rich “Mountain Kingdom” – has caused massive environmental damage and displaced tens of thousands.

Global drought is forcing the world to relearn survival skills long-practiced in the “underdeveloped” South – from rain harvesting to well digging to waterless toilets. In the US, toilets flush 2.1 trillion gallons of water down the drain every year. The folly of using the world’s most precious resource to dispose of human waste recently prompted California’s Orange County to open a $487 million treatment facility that is turning sewage into potable water. You think “toilet-to-tap” technology sounds unpalatable? Just wait a few years.

It has been said that “water flows towards wealth,” but water-scarce South Africa still hopes to reverse that flow. As 90-year-old Nelson Mandela once observed: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.