Beyond rights to necessities: Water Wars

Development, Zimbabwe

On the SWRadio Hotseat programme of 6 June 2013, Violet Gonda- the hostess-asked the Mayor of Harare, Mr Muchadeyi Masunda a very important question: When can the water woes ravaging Harare residents be expected to end. The mayor responded saying;

“Once all the stakeholders who owe money start paying their bills and prioritising payment of their bills in the same way as they do with their cell phones and DSTV, we’ll see a considerable improvement of the situation.”

The Mayor’s response upset me because it is wrong on so many levels;

  1. It implies that the reason why there is no water is because residents are not paying, and that residents have their priorities skewed paying off DSTV and cell-phones instead of water bills. Where does the Mayor place the poor who cannot afford to pay for water? Did he also take into consideration that most residents only stopped paying once they realised that the City Council expected payment for services not rendered.
  2. It transfers the responsibility of ensuring water availability to the residents’ financial capacity.  The reality is that the system we have in place demands that water be supplied by the city councils or government. It is their responsibility to fund-raise and be innovative at it, to ensure that water supply systems are adequately  financed. 
  3. It implies that the running of water supplies is wholly dependent on the payment of water bills by residents. Is it not the duty of government to have a budget for water? How would Mr Masunda explain the recent MDG report findings that 65% of rural water points are not functional? Should rural people also pay for the repair of boreholes in the same way that urban people supposedly pay for water treatment chemical and repair of pipes? If so, what then is the government’s role; just to collect our monies? To me the water issue is a clear indicator of government failure to prioritise basic necessities for the people they purport to represent.

Excuse my emotive approach but I thought we had a right to water!

Yes we do have the right to water under our Constitution. However with rights come obligations; right. The state assumes obligations and duties under international law to respect, to protect and to fulfil these human rights. But unfortunately for us the right to water is a social economic right and even under international law states are permitted to ensure that this right is achieved “progressively” meaning that they can be excused for not making it an immediate reality for all citizens. “Subject to the availability of resources,” the Constitution says.

But is it really possible for any individual to live without water?

Somewhere in Mexico-just over a month ago, I had a sit down with Oscar Olivera. Now who is he, you will ask? I know him as a warm, reflective individual, whose quiet strength made me feel comfortable to ask him anything yet his humble demeanour commanded utmost respect. I also know Oscar as the man who, in 2000, in the Latin American state of Bolivia, led -together with others-a fight against a strong, powerful multinational engineering company called Betchel. Betchel had privatised all the water in Bolivia  including the rain water and unsurprisingly, the government of Bolivia had agreed to this idea under the “guidance” of the World Bank. Within a week of taking over the water management the tariffs were hiked by over 50% making unlimited access to water a privilege for the few who had the necessary funds. The laws demanded that citizens acquire a permit to collect rain water [Who knew that even rain water could be privatised, I mean who died and made these people God!!!] Chen Blanc at the School of Authentic Journalism interviewed Oscar and this interview sheds light into the man and his life struggle.

But what I got from the conversations I had with Oscar was that the ‘rights’ discourse is simply inadequate when describing the importance of water to humanity.  He said,

“To guarantee water is to guarantee the continuation of humanity itself. Water is the human being; in the same way a tree would die with no water is the same way human life would wither without water. Why then should it be acceptable, that access to such a core element to our existence, should be conditional or controlled by another human being or be the subject of profit by a private company?” [I would add or be made conditional upon the payment of rates to municipal authorities]

Fundamental to Oscar’s assertion is the fact that water is a core need and no human being should be denied water. Oscar underscored the importance of the recognition of the “right to water” but emphasised that this is not enough.

“In places like Equador and Bolivia they have introduced water as a right. That is good progress but it could also be problematic. The concept of a right implies a corresponding obligation. By who? By the state? What if the state fails-then what?”

Oscar’s words came back to me when I heard what the Mayor of Harare said.  I am a staunch human rights advocate, but those words made me realise that the right to water is meaningless when citizens actually do not have water.

What does the right to water mean when half the time no water runs through our taps, as municipal water is in short supply? What does it mean to the mother who has to run a household with no water for nine consecutive days? In the Eastern suburbs of Harare, residents are reporting that they are getting water once or twice a month-is that what the right to water entails? And in the northern suburbs most people do not receive municipal water from the City of Harare at all- do they also have a right to water?

Is it meaningful to say we have a right to water when we are buying water to drink because tap water is hazardous to our health? Can we say government is fulfilling its obligations when, were it not for UNICEF’s WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) programme in some areas there would be no communal boreholes that are servicing stricken suburbs?

Yet religiously, the city councils send us exorbitant bills to pay. In most affluent suburbs, people have drilled their own boreholes and the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) has followed up to say “Ground water belongs to us so you must also pay for it.” And so in addition to receiving bills and paying monthly rates for the municipal water they NEVER have, residents also pay quarterly rates for domestic boreholes.

In some rural areas, citizens are clamouring for boreholes, river water is not safe to drink-if it is there at all, yet they supposedly have a ‘right’ to water. In other rural areas, citizens have boreholes but the ‘right’ to use the borehole is given to that one community; it does not translate into a right for other communities. Once rights are mentioned then there are power relations at play. There is also an internalisation of individual ownership of resources and privatisation of water either as individual beings or as individual communities. Boreholes belong to specific villages, dams belong to their communities. Anyone who tries to gain access without consulting with the local community is violating a communal right. Communities can block access to water from each other on the basis of ‘rights.’

I recall Oscar’s words;

“If we are going to talk of rights, so then let them be rights from an indigenous perspective where we grant ourselves rights, they are not given to us. We claim access to water as of necessity not as of right.”

There must be no pre-condition when it comes to accessing water.  As Oscar revealed to me, what they rejected in Cochabamba, Bolivia in the privatisation of their water was essentially the plunder and exploitation that national corporations believed could exert with no consequences. What we should also reject in Zimbabwe is a mismanagement of the resources available to us by those in power, limiting their ability to give us access to clean and safe water. What we should also reject is their frustration of individuals’ attempts at providing water for themselves by continuously putting stringent measures for digging wells or drilling boreholes.

Oscar’s favourite phrase about the communality of water rings true in my head and I hope it does in yours too “Water is not a commodity; it is a common good.”

One thought on “Beyond rights to necessities: Water Wars

  1. I agree with your point of view but only to a certain extent. Masunda did mention that all stakeholders need to have their priorities right- stakeholders include even the municipality itself!

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