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By Mafaniso Hara, Bongani Ncube, Darlington Sibanda

Ever since the 21-day national lockdown to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus came into effect, reports indicate that the lockdown may have worsened the already existing inequalities in access to water and sanitation services in townships, informal settlements and among the homeless.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), water, sanitation and hygiene are key elements in fighting against the spread of this coronavirus Guidelines suggest people frequently wash their hands with soap and water, and that they should disinfect surfaces as often as possible. In 2017, Statistics SA reported that 87% of South Africans have access to safely managed drinking water service. They also reported 75% of the urban population was using safely managed sanitation serives.However, the coronavirus pandemic is illuminating a different situation on the ground. Communities in townships, informal settlements and the homeless especially, have trouble accessing water and sanitation resources.

What are the issues and problems?

According to Stats SA’s General Household Survey of 2018, the Western Cape, after Gauteng, had the second-highest proportion of households living in informal dwellings. Media reports show a dire water and sanitation situation in some sections of townships and informal settlements in Cape Town. In a recent interview, a homeless community that was moved to a temporary tented shelter expressed the lack of water and sanitation as the major challenge. One resident explained that while they were grateful for the tents, they still did not have access to water for hygienic purposes. In anotherinterview, Dunoon residents expressed mixed feelings about being moved to temporary sites as a way of spacing people (so-called de-densification) to contain the spread of infections, with the issue of water and sanitation as one the sticking points.

Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation minister Lindiwe Sisulu, announced that the department procured 41 000 water tanks for national distribution to ensure water supply during the lockdown. However, the minister also expressed concern that “the threat and risk of coronavirus in our informal settlements is real and that we have to make haste so that we don’t find ourselves overwhelmed”. This was an admission that access to adequate water for drinking, sanitation and hygiene in the townships and informal settlements had not been adequate even before the urgency for action enforced by the pandemic.

Regarding the provision of water tanks (reports seem to be saying that this service has not been fully rolled out as yet) one question remains; who will make sure that the tanks are remain full? The responsibility for refilling of tanks was given to municipalities. However, many municipalities struggle to provide reliable water and sanitation supply and maintenance systems under normal conditions. In any case, the provision of tents and mobile water tanks is a temporary solution to a perennial problem, which will return after the Covid-19 crisis.

The number of households sharing communal standpipes and toilets is a huge problem in terms of dealing with the pandemic. The City of Cape Town aims to provide one water tap for every 25 families within a 200m radius and one toilet for every five families, which would comply with the Emergency Housing Programme, but this has proved to be insufficient. For example, in the Marikana informal settlement in Phillipi Township, the City of Cape Town has provided 50 communal standpipes for more than 60 000 residents. As experts stress, viral droplets and touching contaminated surfaces, followed by rubbing one’s mouth, eyes or nose are considered one of the current transmission avenues. The necessity of preventing transmission through surface contamination is therefore vital. Therefore, how to avoid and minimise the spread of infections through touching of shared surfaces, especially in shared toilets, is a real issue for such a community of users.

Usually, several households have to share a toilet located outside their dwelling. For example, Endlovini, in Khayelitsha, is home to an estimated 20 000 people who share 380 communal toilets (about 53 people per toilet). In some instances, people have to walk up to 200 meters to their toilet. In some settlements where communities invaded the land, toilets and communal taps are located on the outskirts of the settlement because the land is still privately owned (for instance, Marikana Informal Settlement) or the informal settlement mushroomed illegally on unsuitable land such as the Drift Sands informal settlement built on a  wetland within the Drift Sands Nature Reserve. In such cases the City of Cape Town argues that it cannot build infrastructure on such land until the legal issues of the illegal occupations have been resolved.  Thus safety for using toilets can be a real challenge. As one activist from the Social Justice Coalition stated “using a toilet in informal settlements is one of the most dangerous activities for residents, in particular for women and children, more so at night.The 2016 community survey indicated that the Western Cape had among the highest amount of households using bucket toilets (3,6%), just behind Northern Cape (4,3%) and the Free State (4,0%). This is another prevailing problem area for sanitation and hygiene not just during the lockdown.

Why do we continue having these problems?

The “Social Scarcity of Water” is an apt description of the existing situation regarding water for the poor in cities such as Cape Town. This refers to the disjuncture between people’s multiple-use of water and water services governance institutions. The disjuncture is a product of social and economic marginalisation, unequal power relations and the way these structure rights and security of access to water and sanitation. Water social scarcity, therefore, revolves around issues of inequality (social, economic, political), tenure (formal and informal), markets, transparency and accountability. While the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan was developed to address most of these problems, the challenge is whether and how this can be fast-tracked to help dealing with the current pandemic.

In townships, a formal ‘title’ is usually attached to a house or property. Such title holders become landlords who provide a ‘basket’ of services to their tenants (inside and outside the house) which include water, sanitation, electricity, etc. Thus access to water and sanitation in townships and informal settlements is largely based on informal and other loosely structured social and economic relations and arrangements. Given that more than half of township and informal settlement residents live in such informal tenure arrangements, access to adequate water and sanitation is a challenge at the best of times.

Another dimension which has seen tremendous growth in South African cities is the backyard housing sub-sector. There is no doubt that Cape Town and other cities in South Africa are struggling for land and housing provision for a burgeoning population. The cities still face the problems arising from apartheid spatial engineering. The unplanned growth in informal housing and informal settlements and thus the growth in demand for water, sanitation and other services, are increasingly stretching the carrying capacity of the existing infrastructure in many urban areas to breaking point. In dealing with the issue of land for housing, Minister Sisulu’s department has identified 17 parcels of land, of which four were owned by private companies and individuals and the rest by municipalities. The question is whether these individual companies are willing to sell their land at a reasonable cost or could the land be expropriated without compensation? If the latter, will municipalities be willing to provide services on private land under dispute? Already, there are examples of ongoing court cases such as the Marikana informal settlement where the City of Cape Town refused to provide services on privately owned land still under dispute, choosing rather to provide water and sanitation facilities on municipal land in the outskirts of the settlement.

Dealing with the Pandemic and the Future Thereafter

On the one hand, do the plans and pronouncements by Minister Sisulu go far enough to address both ‘old’ (and complex) problems? And on the other, do they address the water and sanitation problems which could soon escalate into a disaster as a result of the pandemic?

While South Africa may seem to be progressing well in meeting the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Goal 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), townships and informal settlements continue to grow. The challenge of unequal access, shortage or lack of services is deepening. The Covid-19 hygiene guidelines and requirements not only reveal the yawning gap in inequality in terms of adequate access to water and sanitation between poor and marginalised communities and the rest of society, but paints the grim picture that this gap might actually be widening. How one achieves social distancing in an informal dwelling (where on average six to eight family members live in one room); at communal taps and around the use of communal toilets remains epitomes of how impractical these guidelines are for such communities.

Isn’t it perhaps time to develop more permanent solutions to some of the problems of water and sanitation for the poor in cities? The government needs to start thinking about some of the strategies that need to be put in place now and beyond the coronavirus crisis as recommended below:

  • Water governance and legislative reforms: The National Water and Sanitation Master Plan is one of the best approaches that the government has taken in addressing the long-standing water issues. The plan outlines a plan of action that needs to be implemented by the entire water sector in South Africa to achieve government’s goals and objectives. There is an urgent need to create enabling processes such as hastening the passing of the Water and Sanitation Bill and the implementation of the National Water and Sanitation Resource Strategy in reaction to the pandemic. This could also help to address the issues of equity and access to water and sanitation in marginalised communities.
  • Data-driven interventions: The StatsSA Goal Tracker is a robust system of tracking and reporting on the SDGs. The system shows positive outcomes in terms of South Africa’s progress on Goal 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), with seven of the eight targets being indicated as having been achieved by December 2019. However, there is a need to dig deeper into some of these long-standing and growing problems beyond such statistics such as the practical complexities of access to water and sanitation for townships and informal settlements.
  • Informal arrangements: Informal arrangements to water and sanitation are likely to be with us for a long time to come. While there is a need to try and provide adequate water and sanitation for all citizens, there is a need to recognise informal tenure and find strategies for making these exist and work along with formal tenure systems. As the government and all stakeholders work on strategies to fight the pandemic, this needs to include how to deal with improving how the various tenure systems should work for the benefit of improved water and sanitation for people using these systems.
  • Transparency and accountability: There is a need for the government to instil accountability and integrity in the water sector. During disaster periods such as the current pandemic, systems might slip as people focus on addressing the challenge at hand, while other people might simply want to make quick money out of such misery. The recently published report by Corruption Watch and the Water Integrity Network in March 2020 (titled Money down the Drain: corruption in South Africa’s water sector), is an example of the problems of corruption and maladministration in the sector, which in the end hurt the poor the most. It is therefore important that the government remains alert to some of these malpractices and builds systems and institutions that are accountable to communities and society.
  • Community engagement: There is a need to engage the communities through social structures and civil society to create genuine dialogue in water service provision. For example, where to locate communal taps and toilets and how to manage and maintain these. There is also the issue of relocations (de-densification) of people from some townships and informal settlements as part of trying to deal with problems of social distancing as announced by the Minister. This would create trust between communities and the government, and could lead to workable solutions in terms of provision of water and sanitation, especially at the moment, as part of inclusive strategies for fighting the pandemic.
  • Effective intergovernmental cooperation and partnerships: Water and sanitation management cannot be effectively implemented without collaboration between the different government departments and the private sector. Having human settlements and water and sanitation under one ministry is a step in the right direction. However, the role of other large water user ministries such as agriculture and mining is critical. The private sector has to be an important player. The worst thing is to have poorly coordinated efforts at a time like this when all stakeholders need to be steering in one direction if we are to defeat the pandemic.
  • Funding mechanisms for water and sanitation vis-à-vis Covid-19: The National Water and Sanitation Master Plan recognises that “Without sufficient revenue from transfers and tariffs the sector will be unsustainable”. Dealing with the pandemic will require other emergency sources of funding. While the government is scrambling to find funding for dealing with the various issues such health infrastructure and equipment, there could be a role for water based private companies and philanthropies. This type of funding is likely to require lesser conditionalities and more flexibility in terms of using such funds for dealing with emergencies arising from the pandemic.
  • Service provision, municipalities and Covid-19: Municipalities are responsible for service provision, including water and sanitation services. However, a lot of municipalities are struggling to effectively and efficiently carry out their mandates as evidenced by growing service delivery protests across the country in recent years. It is high time that local government and the water sector ministries found common ground in water and sanitation service provision and how these could be improved, particularly at a time like this when ratepayers and communities really need efficient and effective water and sanitation services.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a rude awakening for South Africa’s ability to provide water and sanitation for the poor and marginalised. However, it is also an opportunity to reflect on some of the policies and strategies that the government has used so far in providing these services to the poor.  The need to address water and sanitation challenges is urgent. The mechanisms and actions of implementing the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan need to start now, even as an emergency arising from the need to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. As the plan fully acknowledges, the rapid growth of the urban population means that there is a need for quick action.


Cover image: Kim Ludbrook/EPA