Poor governance leaves women and children battling to access water
Inadequate water access affects women and girls in poor households, schools and as smallholders feeding their families
By Dr Ferrial Adam
*photo: Ground up
Drought, failing infrastructure, unrestrained pollution, failure by authorities to plan and outright theft of resources have left many South African communities struggling for basic water resources. Those in distress are no longer the rural communities out of public view, but also increasingly in cities.
The quantity and quality of our water affects women and girls disproportionately in terms of domestic use, safety, building livelihoods and opportunities.
South Africa is a naturally water-scarce country, but it is the poor level of access that affects the quantity of water for most poor households. In recent years we have also witnessed the deterioration of the quality of our water as more rivers and streams are being polluted by failing wastewater treatment plants and industrial effluent.
In many developing countries having piped water and taps in your homes still seems to be a privilege. According to UNESCO, almost 75% of households in sub-Saharan Africa fetch water from a source away from their home. In South Africa, Stats SA reports that less than half (45.2%) of households have piped water in their homes, less than a third (29.4%) have piped water in their yards and 12.2% rely on a communal tap, which means hours spent queuing and carrying. Many other households still rely on rivers, streams and communal supplies. These numbers do not tell the full story: in far too many areas of South Africa, water sources have been so badly maintained or developed by municipalities and national government that even where there are taps, there is nothing in them.
Years of drought have worsened this problem, for example in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape, where authorities have poor communities with inadequate and erratic backup. In Giyani, despite the R4 billion water project, more than 60% of households still do not have water in their yards, very largely due to the corruption in that project.
The task to collect water falls on the shoulders of young girls and women. Around the world, over 200 million hours is spent every day by women and girls walking to source water and then carrying home heavy containers (at least 20kg) on their heads or backs. This not only affects their time for school or paid work but also makes them vulnerable to abuse and attacks.
The lack of water poses additional stresses for women as they need water for adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities especially during menstruation. In addition, it’s not just about fetching the water, but it is also about the poor quality of the water. Poor water quality can affect basic hygiene and women’s health that can result in issues such as urinary infections or even affect their self-esteem.
The quality of our drinking water resources and wastewater treatment in South Africa has rapidly deteriorated over the last decade.
The Department of Water and Sanitation’s Blue Drop report, finally released in April after 8 years of not being released, shows that 1 186 water supply systems (77%) fail to meet legal standards, underlining the widespread failure of municipalities. The country has 52% of water supply systems that range from medium to critical risk. In addition, a mere 23 of 995 wastewater treatment plants obtained a Green Drop certification.
The poor quality adds to the challenges that women face. For example, in the King Sabata Dalindyebo municipality, women walk at least a kilometre to fetch dirty water from a spring that often contains fungi and worms and has to be strained and boiled before use adding to their time they spend on collecting and cleaning the water. In Komga, in Amathole municipality, there has been no water in the taps for 10 years.
The poor quality of water also affects food production and livelihoods, especially smallholder farmers, many of whom are women. In South Africa, there are approximately two million smallholder farmers compared to 35 000 commercial growers. Many of these farmers rely on the land to feed their families with hopefully some surplus to sell or trade.
While women farmers play a vital role in food production and food security, a 2019 study on women farmers in Africa found they disproportionately face a number of challenges and are less likely to succeed than their male counterparts. They are less likely to own land and also experience a lack of access to water, seeds, credit, and technology. A 2018 study suggests that women would achieve higher welfare than men with the same level of water access, as an increase of access to water could increase agricultural production and/or productivity, which results in improved farm incomes.
We need to acknowledge the role of smallholder farmers to reduce hunger in the country and understand the gender dimensions and challenges that the majority of smallholder women farmers are facing. A review is needed of agriculture policies that will register smallholder women farmers as water users and that reduce the gap they face in access to water. Climate Change and extreme weather will only make these farmers more vulnerable. Farmers with more access to water face less risk of crop failure. The agricultural sector as a whole needs to shift from one of heavy water usage to one that can better guard our water resources.
Women and girls are disproportionately affected by the lack of access to fair quantity and good quality water. We need to have a gender-sensitive approach in our policies, campaigns and activities, as understanding the needs of girls and women in relation to water is vital to achieve gender equity (in terms of health), to combat poverty (smallholder women farmer growth) and hunger (food security), and to create a strong network of water guardians.
Dr Ferrial Adam has a long history of advancing environmental justice and human rights issues and has worked for various organisations, including Earthlife Africa and Greenpeace Africa. She has served as the chairperson on the board of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA). Dr Adam has completed her PhD on Citizen Science and Environmental Justice in SA’s Water Sector. She is manager of WaterCAN, an initiative of OUTA. .