While the film’s gross exaggerations are an obvious example of Hollywood’s artistic licence, the fact that water takes the centre stage reflects its importance as a day-to-day resource. So important is water that the United Nations has declared 22 March annually, as World Water Day, in which water is celebrated. Adequate access to water enables a higher quality of life though improved health and economic opportunities.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which South Africa has signed and recently ratified, guarantees the right to water as an essential component of the right to an adequate standard of living. Other treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) include guaranteed access to water. The right to water guarantees the availability of water for specific uses. South Africa’s Constitution too follows suit in recognising the importance of water, with section 27(1)(b) providing that everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water. Further, the state is obliged to “take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of these rights”.

As such the National Water Act (The Water Act) is the key legislation governing how South Africans access water. It mandates national government with responsibility for the equitable allocation and use of the scarce and unevenly distributed water resources of the nation. The Water Act further intends to ensure the sustainable use of water through the protection of the quality of water resources for the benefit of all water users.

According to the National Water Resource Strategy of 2004, South Africa is located in a predominantly semi-arid part of the world. With an average rainfall of 450 mm/annum, contrasted with the world average of 860mm/annum, water resources are scarce and limited.  An often-punted conclusion from economists and environmentalists alike is that the nation stands on the verge of a water crisis.

Arguably, South Africa’s water woes are compounded by poor infrastructure maintenance, lack of expertise and a lack of political will to maintain existing water systems. According to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, such factors played a role in causing the water shortages reported in towns such as Ermelo, Delmas and Lichtenburg.

As with many other sectors, most notably electricity supply, there has been a neglect of infrastructure. The National Water Resource Strategy of 2004 also estimated that infrastructure development could potentially increase water availability by nearly 40% by 2025. The same resource strategy of 2013 also states that in most instances where there are problems with accessing water, this is due to poor water supply management, rather than the result of water shortages. The same policy document states that 30% to 40% of water is lost between the water sources and the end user. This is due to a variety of factors, such as inaccurate metering and billing, theft and aging municipal infrastructure.

Another problem is the pollution of water supplies. As was seen in Carolina, in 2012, the water treatment plant became overwhelmed by pollution from the nearby mines. This affected the water quality, forcing residents to walk great distances to fetch water elsewhere. In Ventersdorp, sewage works are said to be dysfunctional, with the sewage overflowing into the settlement dams, seeping into nearby rivers and dams, with serious health implications for the town’s population. Polluted water supplies are also said to be the cause of service delivery protests which have often turned violent. In Mothutlung near Brits, four people died after violent protests because of water shortages, amidst allegations of corruption and maladministration.

A 2014 Water Research Commission study concluded that people living in informal urban and rural parts of the country lacked adequate and safe drinking water, which greatly influenced the service delivery protests witnessed nationwide. During 2013, Grahamstown spent more than a week without water, after a series of breakdowns, and a power failure at the town’s aging pumping plant. Only after intervention from the office of the President, was water restored. The North West University in 2013 was briefly forced to close due to a severe water shortage.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) in 2014 released a report on the nation’s water situation, after being inundated with complaints about shortages, irregular supplies and polluted water. The report showed that South Africa’s water infrastructure badly needed repairs and that many households did not have access to water, or that such access was difficult. The infrastructure problems were said to be as a result of poor workmanship and  a lack of maintenance.

It is true that South Africa’s water resources are both scarce and limited. It is also true that many local governments have time and again failed to meet basic constitutional and legislative obligations as mentioned above, thus exacerbating water shortages and infringing the right to have access to water. None of this is necessary. If  the nation’s water resources are prudently managed, distributed equally, and used with care, South Africa should be able to  provide sufficient water for all its citizens and to ensure the progressive realisation of this important constitutional right.

*As a result of pressure from the World Bank and the International Development Bank, Bolivia privatised its water supplies, but had a change of heart after the move proved very unpopular with the general populace.

Phephelaphi Dube: Legal Officer, Centre for Constitutional Rights

[Photo credit: unwater.org]