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Cape Town’s Water Crisis Response Needs to Protect the Rights of Millions

South Africa’s Solution Needs to be Rooted in Respect for the Right to Water

Residents walk past a leaking communal tap in Khayelitsha township, near Cape Town, South Africa, December 12, 2017. © 2017 Reuters
Cape Town, South Africa has been plunged into a water crisis, and in about two months – a date known as Day Zero – the city will run out of water, and supplies to most suburbs will be cut off. Rationing will begin at 200 places across the city with each person limited to 25 liters of water a day.

A public debate is raging, but it’s focused on where blame lies. There is little talk on how to protect South Africans’ rights to water, sanitation, and health, guaranteed by the constitution and human rights law.

Causes of the crisis are numerous and predictable, including a population increase of the greater Cape Town area to about 4.3 million from about 2.4 million in 1995, outstripping water storage capacity of the six dams that supply the city. Heavy water consumption during the three-year drought, exacerbated by climate change; poor water management by the municipality; and poor coordination of responses between the municipality, the provincial, and the national government, are other contributing factors.

The government’s response must keep respect for and fulfillment of fundamental rights at the core of a sustainable resolution, and ensure that allocation of water is prioritized according to vital needs.

To their credit, the South African Human Rights Commission is monitoring the situation, but more needs to be done. All levels of government need to work together to develop a transparent and participatory approach to allocation of water resources, identifying specific rights and needs related to water and sanitation, such as drinking and cooking and access to sanitation and personal hygiene, especially for women and girls many of whom living in Cape Town’s informal settlements already struggle for access. Authorities should assess whom the crisis will hit hardest and ensure marginalized communities are not left out either in the development of a rationing scheme or a long-term solution.

In meeting its obligation to protect human rights, South Africa’s national government should assist Cape Town’s municipality to develop strategies for lasting solutions to the crisis. This should involve city residents, paying particular attention to groups at increased risk from poor water and sanitation conditions, such as women, people with disabilities, older people, and those living in poverty.

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