Water is the source of all life

The Verulam Water Crisis Committee protested outside the Durban City Hall due to ongoing water problems in areas north of Durban. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo

The Verulam Water Crisis Committee protested outside the Durban City Hall due to ongoing water problems in areas north of Durban. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo

Published Mar 21, 2024


It is widely established that human rights are indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. Similarly, consensus exists that water is the source of all life and therefore the right to water is the force that sustains the intrinsic connectedness of all human rights. However, in South Africa this vital right is under siege due substantially to neglected infrastructure.

The nation is grappling with a growing crisis as the availability of this essential resource increasingly diminishes – leading to inequalities and adversities. The unfolding crisis is on full display in the rising number of community protests against water shortages.

In the province of KwaZulu-Natal, communities living in the eThekwini Metropolitan are particularly despondent with increasing reports of water protests. In recent months, there have been increased protest action in areas such as Phoenix, KwaXimba, Verulam, KwaNyuswa and oThongathi among others.

More recently, protests have disrupted the water functions of the metro, further destabilising the system. In certain areas, protests have been reported to feature arson, the firing of rubber bullets, and injuries.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is responsible for upholding the dignity and well-being of citizens, and is inundated with complaints that highlight the failures in water provision in the province. In response to the growing crisis, the commission has intensified its strategic interventions in line with its constitutional mandate.

In August 2022, the commission, by means of an investigative inquiry, investigated the extent of the challenges experienced by communities and the systemic nature of the violation of human rights. This entailed assessing the extent to which the organs of state have respected, protected, and fulfilled the right to sufficient water, including assessing the reasonableness of measures adopted to ensure the progressive realisation of the right to sufficient water.

Nomusa Zungu

The findings of the water inquiry exposed a landscape marred by systemic shortcomings where providing water is impeded by management practices, a lack of strategic planning and a notable absence of accountability and leadership within municipal structures.

Essential elements crucial for delivering services such as maintaining and investing in infrastructure often get overlooked, worsening the situation for communities already struggling with water insecurity. Additionally, the lack of communication between the municipality and residents exacerbates these challenges along with a lack of awareness about community concerns.

Essentially, the water crisis in KZN results less from water scarcity, but rather largely attributed to the delivery systems of the relevant water services institutions. And yet despite the findings and recommendations outlined in the KZN Water Inquiry Report, the state of access to water seems to be deteriorating.

More recently, and in response to rising protests in communities in the north of Durban, the SAHRC has facilitated the establishment of a war room with the aim and purpose of bringing communities closer to the municipality, and to ensure accountability and transparent governance in the realisation of the right to water. This platform fosters direct engagement between the eThekwini Municipality and communities.

Further, on March 6, a town hall meeting was convened by the commission to bring together water experts who reside in the metropolitan area, in an effort to developing community-led solutions and to finding sustainable approaches to address the ongoing water crisis in the metro.

Philile Ntuli

The town hall engagement noted that despite positive measures reported by the municipality, a myriad interrelated factors plague the delivery of water. The infrastructural challenges are chief among the disruptions and deprivations. The town hall meeting also pointed to mismanagement plaguing the eThekwini Municipality. Notably, and resulting from failing infrastructure, is the rise in municipal reliance on the water-tankering system.

The SAHRC KZN Water Inquiry Report (published in 2023) found a number of challenges with the water tankering system. These include but are not limited to: inadequate and disproportionate supply and delivery to communities; as well as manipulation and commercialisation of the system, such that those community members with connections and money receive regular delivery and supply at the expense of others.

In addition, the politicisation of the tankering system and the possible financial benefit from the system by municipal officials and members of municipal councils were flagged.

Further, there exists a lack of co-ordination between the eThekwini Municipality, the Department of Water and Sanitation and uMngeni-uThukela Water. This underscores the necessity for a cohesive and integrated approach to water provision among government institutions.

It is also crucial for both the metro and the province as a whole to review their disaster management strategies as shortcomings in this area have significantly contributed to infrastructure decay and worsened water-related issues.

Despite the perpetual challenges of water supply in the province, the commission is committed to ensure the protection of the right to water. It is crucial for all stakeholders to commit to efforts aimed at addressing systemic shortcomings and injustices affecting water provision in KZN.

Only through comprehensive reform and genuine collaboration can we hope to overcome the entrenched issues plaguing the provision of water in eThekwini and beyond. The commission is committed to intensifying its efforts at creating a conducive environment for community-led solutions in the promotion and protection of human rights.

Nomusa Zungu: Legal Consultant and Philile Ntuli: Commissioner – at the South African Human Rights Commission