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Transforming Society

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Media Statement: A time to reflect as the country joins the world to commemorate World Water Day

Attention: Editors and Reporters
22 March 2021

Today, 22 March 2021, marks World Water Day (WWD), globally. The United Nations General Assembly through the adoption of resolution A/RES/47/193 on 22 December 1992 declared 22 March annual WWD. The aim of WWD is to raise awareness about the importance of water, which is the lifeblood of human existence. The theme for 2021 is “Valuing water”, which is apposite for South Africa given that it is a water scarce country and amongst the driest countries in the world.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), in General Comment No.15, stated that ‘water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity’. The coronavirus epidemic (“COVID-19”) highlighted the intrinsic link between the right to water and health outcomes and the fault lines in many countries, where communities do not have access to sufficient water for drinking or hygiene purposes. Access to water is crucial in preventing contagion and limiting the spread of viruses, such as COVID-19.

Despite the strides taken by the democratic government of South Africa to promote access to sufficient water, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC/Commission) through a number of reports, has revealed that deep inequalities with respect to access, availability and the quality of water persist in the country.  The inequality is gendered in nature, with women and girl-children being the “bearers of water”, tasked with fetching water under precarious conditions, thereby risking their safety and health in light of the COVID-19 virus.  The Commission has also highlighted that disaggregated data reveals disproportionate access, with historically disadvantaged communities bearing the brunt of lack of access to water.  The lack of access to water also affects education outcomes and poses a serious danger to the health and safety of learners at schools.

The Commission is also concerned by the fact that some mining companies continue to conduct operations that frequently draw water directly from natural sources meant to simultaneously provide for communities and/or operate without the requisite water-use licence. This concern has been echoed by the CESCR in its concluding observations on South Africa, where it noted with concern the impact of mines on water resources, the lack of access to services for communities surrounding mines and the lack of water and sanitation provision in schools. The Commission is further concerned with the state of water infrastructure, which is ageing and has resulted in the full or partial collapse of water and waste-water treatment plants across the country, with few exceptions.

In a recently launched report by the Commission on its inquiry into the sewage problem of the Vaal River in Gauteng, which represents a microcosm of South African water systems, it is clear that most municipalities are failing to effectively maintain water and sanitation infrastructure. This poses a public health and human rights concern. In 2014, the Commission called for the urgent upgrade of water and waste-water treatment plants that are dysfunctional or in disrepair. However, the State failed then to address these concerns, resulting in compounding infrastructure failures and impacts on human health and rights.

As the country joins other nations in commemorating WWD, the Commission urges the South African Government to adopt progressive and human rights based measures to meet its constitutional obligations by addressing the disproportionate access to water, the poor management of water and waste-water treatment plants and the abuse of water resources by mining companies. A multi-pronged approach to improve water availability, water quality, and universal equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water as required by the Sustainable Development Goals and the National Development Plan is urgently required. The Commission also calls upon communities and households to value and conserve water, which is precious but a very scarce resource, which ought to be carefully and effectively managed for current and future generations.

Ends –

Issued by the South African Human Rights Commission
Gushwell Brooks – Communications Co-ordinator Tel: 082 645 8573 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The South African Human Rights Commission.

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The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour.

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