Who bears the load of saving water? A movement for ‘more water’

Anna James, Sarah Van Borek with assistance from Gill Black.

23 November 2018

Monday 19 November was World Toilet Day! A lesser known ‘world day’ that might at first sound a bit strange if you have never had to think too much about your own toilet. However, if we consider how toilets and their absence are linked to daily struggles for dignity and sanitation, then World Toilet Day begins to make a lot of sense. Heywood has recently published an article in the daily maverick, reminding us of the disaster that is toilets across South African schools. Heywood brings needed attention to the assault on children and youth who are trying to get an education without dignified and safe spaces to relieve themselves. (Link to article) This struggle has resulted in deaths and disabilities and if we take a moment to really think about that, we would scream in rage and figure out how to rearrange this situation!

Also on Monday 19 November, DayOne attended an exhibition of the ‘Bucket Loads of Health’ (BLH) project at the Delft public library. BLH is a public engagement in science project. It draws on participatory and creative visual methods to better understand the challenges and health risks linked to saving and reusing water. Delft is a formal settlement in Cape Town that was established in 1989. The settlement is characterized by multiple housing types from informal shacks to RDP houses. As with many socio-economically marginalised areas in Cape Town,  this community struggles to access jobs and other local resources, and suffers from high levels of violent crime.

Scene from the BLH exhibition in Delft

The BLH project brought together a group of fifteen people from five different areas of Delft who have named themselves the #DelftWaterClan. Through the BLH project, the group shared their experiences of how the recent high level water restrictions have affected their lives. Their stories, which were surfaced through body mapping and digital storytelling, have been made into a series of short films that were shared at the exhibition. This powerful mini-series shows how residents of Delft have had to give up life-affirming hobbies like flower and vegetable growing. It illustrates how children have become ill due to sewerage running in the road, important recreational activities in the community have been cancelled, and Muslim burial ceremonies have been disrupted. One of the stories describes the devastation experienced by a young man as he watched several of his relatives burn to death in a fire at his family home. The fire, caused by a petrol bomb, could not be put out because the neighboring households had used their daily allocation of water. These stories are more than just individual accounts, they surface the injustices that are hidden under relentless calls for individual citizens to ‘save water!’.

While they might have been intensified in the 2017/2018 water crisis, the ‘water restrictions’ experienced in these communities are part of an 11 year-long strategy by the City of Cape Town to install water management devices (WMDs) in poor households (Household Impacts of Water Management Devices, 2009). This ongoing strategy, dressed up in the rhetoric of ‘saving water’ is largely limited to poor households. Yet wealthy households are still allowed to use as much water as they can pay for. This is seen by many communities and civil society organizations as an assault on the human right to water.

The BLH project also aimed to enable a process of equitable knowledge exchange between community members and researchers based in the Water Resource lab at Stellenbosch University. This where Professor Wesaal Khan and her team conduct microbiology research on rain water that is harvested from shack roofs in the informal settlement of Enkanini. Microbiology is the study of small organisms that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Professor Khan’s research is highly relevant to questions of water quality and sanitation. It is especially needed at the present time when alternative sources of water that are safe and sustainable are so urgently required. BLH project participants from Delft and Enkanini were invited to visit to the Water Resource lab where they learned about the science behind water quality and the health risks of contaminated water. As part of the knowledge exchange process, the community members shared their body maps and their story-films with the research team. The researchers explained that, having understood deeply the experience of this community, they now have a radically different view about communities’ knowledge and their role in public engagement processes.

Unfortunately, this two way flow of communication is a rare experience for communities around South Africa. The discussion that followed the exhibition revealed the frustrations of community members who are not being heard, particularly by local decision makers. In the community’s experience, municipal communication about the water crisis tends to flow in one direction and concerns top down instructions to ‘save’ and ‘conserve’ water. Having watched the fifteen digital stories that were developed through the BLH project, one can discern that saving water is not practical or realistic for the residents of Delft. They actually need to be able to access more water in order to live a basically decent life.

The call for people to use more water might feel controversial given the urgency of climate change and depleting water resources in the region. But before we find more excuses for further burdening the poor, we need to consider how we can reduce water consumption elsewhere; such as WMDs on wealthy households or reducing water intensive agriculture that is largely serving food exports. We can debate these possibilities, but we need to – at the very least – seriously consider what might enable greater equality and justice in our country.

The willingness of the Delft Water Clan to tell and show their personal stories must be commended as an important starting point towards a ‘more water’ movement (alongside the save water movement). Generating real solutions for these challenges is the next step. Given that it is still possible for Capetonians to use as much water as they can pay for, we must be able to find better ways of effectively managing and allocating water. It is completely unethical to carry on forcing the residents of our poorest communities to make significant and extremely challenging compromises every day of their lives. We must stop asking mothers to sacrifice the hygiene of their children, closing down community activities that often provide the much anticipated highlight of the year, and letting uncontrolled fires devastate homes and claim lives. As we grapple with necessary water reductions city-wide, let’s also have a conversation about ‘more water’ accessible to those who don’t have enough but also ‘more water’ used more carefully and equitably. 

The BLH project is led by Gill Black and Jess Drewett at the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation http://livelihoods.org.za/

The writing of this article was made possible by a year of engagement with various people across the city of Cape Town in the process of producing DayOne podcast episodes. It is through the interactions we have had that we are able to sense into the situation and attempt to communicate it.

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DayOne: Re-imagining our Relationships with Water

The idea for this podcast was born by a slip of the tongue – Day One instead of Day Zero, with Day Zero being the popularized term for the projected date when the City of Cape Town will shut off tapped water to suburbs and force residents to instead collect daily rations of water from collection points around the city. We have chosen DayOne as the name of this podcast to represent a voice of hope, possibility and collective innovation. DayOne acknowledges the city’s water challenge as one that is long-term and that requires sustainable solutions. We want to cultivate a different way of thinking about and working with water in our city. We understand the severity of the current climate change-related drought and water crisis as well as the deep inequalities that govern water flows across the city of Cape Town. We’ve been hearing of a city-wide shared confusion amidst the quickly changing conditions of the situation. Through this podcast we aim to provide a platform for sharing urgent, critical and responsive information from a wide range of perspectives, to respond to water-related questions from people from all walks of life in Cape Town, and to build a network of local leaders and innovators. 

We aim to present as up-to-date-as-possible facts, to invite conversations around complex topics, to inspire connections with water sources in the city through soundscapes, and to nourish imaginations with water-inspired creative contributions from artists across a variety of disciplines.

Stay tuned and please join us! Water is life…