Spotlight: South Africa and Water Scarcity

By Sara Corben

While 122 countries have voted in favor of water as a basic human right, South Africa has demonstrated its commitment to a person’s right to water by including in its Constitution a section which states, “Everyone has the right to have access to… sufficient food and water.” However, despite ongoing efforts to improve management and quality, the number with access to potable water still falls well below the universal goal championed in the country’s constitution.

The availability of water in South Africa varies greatly dependent upon location. While the west is dry, experiencing 100mm of rainfall a year, and only during the summer months, the east and southeast receive rainfall throughout the year, with an average around 1,000mm.

In the past two decades, South Africa has faced the challenge of providing water to the millions challenged by water scarcity. Following Apartheid, nearly 15 million people were without safe water and 21 million lacked adequate sanitation services. The share of the population with access to improved water sources increased from 83% in 1990 to 91% in 2010; however, many people in rural areas still lack access to water. It is estimated that nearly five million people were without water and 15 million lacked access to basic sanitation as of 2008. In an article released last month, at least 26 towns in the Free State reported having no water at all, water supply disruptions, or extremely unhygienic water.

There are a number of factors contributing to water scarcity in South Africa. Climate change has resulted in less frequent rainfall in the region and decreased available water resources. In Durban, dams are 20 percent lower than three years earlier, in 2010. Water quality also plays an issue in water scarcity in South Africa as both inadequate sanitation and the flow of polluted water from old mining areas contribute to waterborne illness and disease.

Poor water management has also contributed to water shortages which are expected to become worse in the coming years. The province of Gauteng, which is already facing water scarcity issues, has experienced severe losses due to crumbling infrastructure. In the fiscal year 2011, Gauteng municipalities lost 480,980,000 kiloliters of water due to leaks in aging infrastructure, amounting to 7.84billion South African Rand, or over 782 million U.S. dollars. Gauteng, which already uses 98 percent of its allocated water resources, relies on neighbouring Lesotho for water from the Vaal Dam. With water losses and increased urbanization, the province expects a significant increase in the price of water in the medium and long term.  

Without appropriate solutions to water challenges in South Africa, millions will continue to suffer from limited access and poor water quality. Others expect to suffer financial losses. In 2009, the town of Parys, located on the Vaal river, experienced losses of $180,000 U.S. dollars a week in visitor cancellations, putting some in the tourism industry out of business. The overarching concern is a human rights issue: will water in South Africa continue to be seen as a fundamental right, or as a paid-for commodity?

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