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Household water security: the real challenge and a pragmatic solution

In more than two decades of democracy, South Africa has made huge strides in water services provision. Despite the public messages of dissatisfaction through ongoing protests, many people have much better access to water in their homes. In addition and in certain instances, the public also have access to water from stand pipes and by sharing a neighbour's tap.
When looking at specific provinces like the Eastern Cape to examine primary sources of water in Nomathamsanqa, for example, the following is outlined:

The primary sources of water in Vukani, Eastern Cape:

These results show a variation in the extent of primary water sources available to households, with the Vukani residents having near universal access (99%) to taps in or near the household. The figure in Nomathamsanqa was far lower for informal settlement residents who were reliant on a neighbour’s garden tap.

With that said, does that mean we can ignore public protests? Ignore the people struggling desperately to care for the elderly in homes without water for days and weeks at a time? Ignore the moms with children who miss days of school because of diarrheal disease? Ignore the women who still move household water by hippo-roller, wheelbarrows or on their heads?

Dr Tally Palmer

Definitely not. Our research shows clearly that, in South Africa, smaller municipalities struggle most with reliable household water supply. There are many reasons for this and it seems as soon as one cause is addressed another kicks in and the taps remain dry. Some of these causes are well known. I have examined more specifically the challenges behind the interrupted water supply in the community of Lower Sundays River Municipality in the Eastern Cape:
  • Historically, water infrastructure focused on irrigation for an export orange industry which is still thriving. There are canals, pipes and established farmers who “order” their water according to a careful schedule which is then released for their use. Following the advent of a democratic South Africa, the irrigation water supply and infrastructure was meant to refocus and actively cooperate with local municipalities to supply the whole population with a reliable water supply. This highlighted that there was not enough water storage infrastructure in the town for any “spare” water supply. Following which, if the town failed to “order” its water in good time, water in the town reservoir ran out and supply ceased. This resulted in pumps drying out and therefore failing to work. Overall, the challenges led to poor relationships between the irrigation suppliers and the municipality, and little communication from either parties. To solve the challenges, irrigation staff needed to then work overtime and be compensated as such.
  • Levels of poverty and unemployment are high in the region. Despite the benefits of the local citrus industry, a challenge arose where citrus farmers opted to use labour brokers to bring in seasonal labour during peak periods than to negotiate employment with the local community.
  • Looking at the financial challenges, income to the municipality was low and procurement processes were complex and demanding. People who qualified for free basic water did not register. People with some income often failed to pay for services. In addition, funds from the municipal infrastructure grant were not easily ring fenced to address water challenges.
  • The closure of the irrigation canals in winter for cleaning and maintenance added to the ongoing problems the community faced.

When examining the numbers in the local residential area of Nomathansaqua, the community experienced serious water supply interruption:

Understandably, it would be naïve to imagine the multiple challenges facing small municipalities will be solved quickly.

Solutions need to be actioned and actioned quickly. Even after it was clearly noted that the irrigation organisers in the water user association needed to have a service level agreement with the municipality in place, this failed to be drafted and signed.

A big part of ensuring accurate data is recorded to fully understand the challenges at hand in order for the right decisions to be made and implemented, research funding and activities need to continue.

So, what do we do going forward?

We need to maintain open dialogue with communities to ensure the solutions really do solve their challenges and concerns. For example in the Vukani suburb in Makana Municipality, Eastern Cape, local residents partnered with the university to document water supply experiences. They were also included in outlining preferred solutions. It then became apparent that the community wanted 250l water storage capacity (water tanks) in their homes where they can control access and quality. They fill the tanks when there is water in the taps, and this capacity is able to see them through any water interruptions.

Overview of Vukani water shortages:

Most suitable emergency water storage identified:

This resulted in more residents showing the willingness to contribute financially to a meaningful water storage solution:

Understandably, this solution will not be suitable in areas where there is no supply, but there are many areas with some provision of piped water that is simply unreliable.

Looking at a more long-term and sustainable solution, I strongly suggest that every household installs water storage tanks as soon as possible. Household water tanks, with proper use, is a safe and healthy way to use water in our homes. Together with public-private partnerships, local private enterprises, water tank suppliers and local entrepreneurs who can secure, keep stocks of as well as sell and deliver tanks. Working together with municipalities will ensure every household in the affected areas has a secure water supply.

Unilever is leading the charge and piloting such partnerships. But the success of this will be in the collective action of us all. Unilever is currently seeking other partners to ignite its solution - Water for People. While the company works hard to bring on partners, they too share regular information about how to save water, understand where leaks comes from and how to fix them, ultimately encouraging the public to become People for Water.
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About the author

Dr Tally Palmer is director of the Institute for Water Research and specialist researcher at the Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality, Rhodes University.