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South Africa: ‘At Some Point We Need Government to Listen’ – Civil Society Rallies for Access to Clean Water

Fourteen civil society organisations have joined forces to fight the lack of access to clean drinking water across the country, but specifically in the Eastern Cape, as the outbreak of Covid-19 infections highlighted this desperate and expensive struggle facing many communities.

“Part of what we are doing here today is to say to government: At some point we need you to listen. Recognise our voice and our struggle. Recognise that we have been resilient for so long. We are exploring litigation as a way to amplify our voice and find a short term solution… As a collective we cannot say this loud enough. This is what is in our heart,” said Nontando Ngamlana, the Executive Director at Afesis-corplan, a development NGO.

Public interest and human rights organisations the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, the Centre for Environmental Rights and the Legal Resources Centre are partnering with community-based organisations such as Masifundise, Coastal Links, the South African Water Caucus, Afesis-corplan, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA), Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG), COPAC, and the C19 People’s Coalition in an effort aimed at ensuring that acceptable quality water is made available to the most vulnerable communities as a matter of urgency.

“We hope that by joining forces and creating a space for communities to tell their own stories, that the true extent of suffering and hardship caused by government’s inaction will create real impetus for meaningful change,” said Boyisile Mafilika of the Masifundise Development Trust.

The South African Water Caucus (SAWC) has a list of 27 communities who have been crippled by a lack of access to water during the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the beginning of lockdown, several organisations have repeatedly appealed to the Department of Water and Sanitation to deliver sufficient water to these communities.

“The right to adequate drinking water is guaranteed under the Constitution. The South African Water Caucus has repeatedly written to the minister and the local municipalities, without even the courtesy of a reply. Litigation is never our first option in seeking to address these human rights violations, but without an urgent response and constructive engagement from government actors, we may have no other choice… It appears that our respective clients have no option but to approach the courts for relief,” said Melissa Fourie, the executive director of the Centre for Environmental Rights.

“Despite increasing numbers of cases in which courts are being used to secure the right to water, securing court orders does not necessarily bring changes on the ground. There is a lot of groundwork to cover. Government’s accountability for the right to water access stems from the understanding that they hold power in trust on behalf of the people and that their mandate includes an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to water,” said Nick Hamer, a researcher at the Environmental Monitoring Group.

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