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Centre for Environmental Rights – Advancing Environmental Rights in South Africa

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A human rights outrage: In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, access to water still a pipedream for the most vulnerable communities in South Africa

On 17 September 2020, water access activists, community members, civil society representatives, along with human rights organisations will be participating in a joint virtual briefing session to highlight the urgency of the challenges to water access for vulnerable communities across the country.

Water is a human right

With nearly 1 million people dying each year from water, sanitation and hygiene-related diseases in South Africa – the lack of water access for millions of people means that the water crisis is a health crisis – one that could be significantly reduced with proper access to water and sanitation. The cumulative impacts of this crisis increases economic pressure and decreases the social quality of life, while exposing children and women to gendered violence. In South Africa the lack of water infrastructure, inefficient service delivery of water, sanitation and waste management, and lack of democratic engagement, has led to a systemic failure which severely undermines the human right to water for the essential and basic needs: drinking, hygiene, sanitation, economic activity, growing and cooking food.

COVID-19 enhances the struggle for water access

Research shows that community members  – children and women, in particular  – spend time collecting, cleaning and storing water from local and unreliable or polluted sources or being exposed to unsafe and unclean water from broken or leaking water infrastructure. Exposure to diseases like dysentery, cholera and now coronavirus (Covid19), which not only causes long term harm to health, but increases the costs of medical treatment and the risk of losing income due to contracting a disease from environmental pollution.  Global reports show that the Covid-19 health pandemic lockdowns are worsening the inequality of access to water, sanitation, and waste management services. And this is echoed in the experiences of  communities in informal settlements, rural areas, and townships in SA.  Access to water and sanitation for hygiene practices are essential against the spread of Covid19 – but frequent washing of hands with soap and water and regular disinfection of living and working surfaces remains a daily struggle, despite the plans and efforts from government during the lockdown period.

Water Access Now/ Sifun’ Amanzi

It is in this urgent context that we say enough is enough and come together in this movement which includes impacted communities, civil society organisations and human rights legal NGOs, connecting the various interventions and advocacy in towards a strategic outcome – immediate water access to affected areas! The Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) and the Legal Resources Centre, have partnered with community-based and non-governmental organisations including Masifundise, Coastal Links, the South African Water Caucus, Environmental Monitoring Group, Afesis-corplan, VEJA, COPAC, South African Food and Sovereignty Campaign (SAFSC), C19 Peoples’ Coalition, WoMin and Extinction Rebellion, Nelson Mandela Bay in a joint effort, to ensure that clean safe water made available to the most vulnerable communities urgently.


Since he took office, President Ramaphosa has created expectations of progressive policy and legislative shifts in numerous sectors. However, South Africa’s water access problems continue to impede the health and environment for too many people. This is dramatically out of step with the country’s own commitments to address COVID-19 and the lack of sanitation in informal settlements, schools and other informal sectors. The water crisis only exacerbates the levels of impoverishment, alluding to the multiple failures in a collapsing governance system. The Constitution guarantees access to sufficient water for everyone, yet this basic human right, so essential for the realisation of other rights in the Constitution is not being realised by the government, progressively or otherwise.

At the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which announced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). South Africa has also committed itself to achieve the SDG’s within set time frames. Goal 6 of the SDGs deals with the right to water and sanitation services for all to:

  • Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all;
  • By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all;
  • By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.

Water is a human right and it is critical for the government to fulfil the state and global mandate to provide access for all.