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Opinion Piece: Ripples of change toward building a world of water equity and unity

By Robert Erasmus, Managing Director at Sanitech

World Water Day 2024 resonates deeply in South Africa, where access to clean water remains a significant struggle for many. Recent protests sparked by water scarcity highlight the urgency of this issue, reminding us that water is not just a resource, but a fundamental human right. This year’s theme, “Leveraging Water for Peace,” calls for unity and recognition of water’s universal significance. As we face the reality of inequality, it is important for us to renew our commitment to equitable water access for all, by fostering dialogue and taking action that is deeply rooted in empathy and ubuntu. Every drop should bring not only sustenance, but also the promise of peace and prosperity.


Connecting local struggles to global issues

South Africa’s water challenges mirror broader global concerns. Ranked a worrying fifth in global water risk, we share these strained resources with our neighbours. This interconnectedness cannot be ignored, and neglecting this truth is likely to fuel regional tensions. Instead, by highlighting our shared challenge, we can strengthen our position and emphasise the need for collaborative solutions. The depth of South Africa’s water scarcity isn’t just a domestic issue – it’s a regional one. Our ranking among the world’s worst puts us alongside stressed neighbours, suggesting the potential for cross-border conflict over shared resources.

Internally, competition between formal and informal users already creates friction, amplified by seasonal rainfall and inadequate infrastructure. To make matters worse, poor sanitation further contaminates water sources, escalating the crisis. The Institute for Security Studies’ Public Violence and Protest Monitor shows that in South Africa, community frustrations with water and sanitation delivery failures resulted in 585 cases of public protest between January 2013 and April 2021, of which incidents, 65% escalated into violent protests.


Aligning with the water rights framework

Although South Africa boasts a progressive water rights framework, our efforts must align with this framework, ensuring that the fight for water equity remains central to our pursuit of peace. Empowering communities with access to clean drinking water and sanitation and upholding water rights are essential steps toward conflict prevention.

Raising awareness is essential, but tangible action holds the key to progress. Businesses can play an important role in acknowledging South Africa’s water scarcity and investing in corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects that focus on addressing sanitation and water quality in the communities in which they operate. From an individual perspective, it is important that each citizen does their part to conserve water, while supporting organisations that work on improving water access, and raising awareness of related issues within their communities. At a government level, it is critical to prioritise infrastructure maintenance, address sewage contamination, and collaborate with regional partners and industries on sustainable water management strategies, to prevent civil unrest by addressing water equity issues.

Tapping into Ubuntu and empathy

Ubuntu, the South African philosophy of shared humanity, encourages us to understand and share the experiences of others. Cultivating empathy across communities, businesses, and government fosters inclusive dialogue and collaborative solutions. With the principles of ubuntu in mind, it is critical to address sewage contamination to preserve our scarce water resources. It is essential for municipalities and provincial governments to invest in infrastructure upgrades to reduce water loss and improve delivery.   Businesses operating within the sanitation and water treatment sectors have the potential to empower communities by providing filtration and treatment solutions for local water sources. Moreover, the broader private sector can contribute to corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives aimed at enhancing sanitation and water quality in vulnerable communities.

Amplifying voices through collaborative communication

Empowering community voices is vitally important. This can be achieved through increased awareness on water scarcity and its impact, as well as by supporting local initiatives that improve water access and quality. Based on the principles of ubuntu, we must advocate for the facilitation of open communication between communities, businesses, and government. Water advocacy groups such as South African Water Caucus (SAWC), and water project NGOs such as the Mvula Trust must continue to advocate for increased funding for water and sanitation projects, by holding the government accountable for meeting water rights and supporting regional cooperation on water management.


Uniting for peace and prosperity

In this way, individuals, organisations, and governments can turn the promise of World Water Day into tangible progress by working together. In prioritising equitable water access, addressing underlying challenges, and fostering collaboration, we can build a future where every drop flows towards peace, not conflict. Remember, water scarcity and strife does not have to be our inevitable future. Through collective action and commitment, we can ensure that this precious resource serves as a bridge to peace and prosperity for all.

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