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South African woman fetching water

The Reality That is Lived Daily

Report by Koketso Moeti, Safe World's South Africa Correspondent. March 2012.

Water, and the Right to LifeSouth African child fetching water

All living creatures need water for their survival.

It is essential for nutrition, for the production of food, and for hygiene.

It is clear that water is integral to ensuring the greatest human right: the right to life.

Lack of Water Access Threatens Women's Rights

In most South African households, women are the primary caregivers and as such, they bear the worst of inadequate access to water.

As primary caregivers, women are the heaviest users of water. Needing it not only for household chores such as cooking, cleaning, and washing, but for those with children, it is also essential for childcare.

Under these circumstances, women are forced to ensure that their households have water, and in doing this, they often compromise their own safety by going long distances for water.

It also adds to their responsibilities, robbing them of time that could have been better used – whether to improve themselves or tend to their families. Women have specific sanitation needs, yet in many areas there are no adequate toilet facilities.

A lack of access to water, also leads to a lack of adequate sanitation. With women having their own specific sanitation needs, they are once more the worst-affected.

Being unable to urinate, defecate, or deal with menstrual hygiene in private is an affront to a woman’s right to dignity - quite apart from the possible safety risks involved, women often find it humiliating.

For most women in rural areas, this is a reality that is lived daily.

Condoning Abuse of Women

Statistics published in a government report in August 2011 appear to show that a vast majority of households in South Africa have access to water.A water supply in South Africa

However, a closer analysis reveals that many have to walk long distances for water, and that water supplies are not necessarily clean and safe. Over half the population may be lacking an adequate water supply.

In failing to fulfil obligations in this respect, the state is not only denying a basic human right, but in so doing oppresses a group that it has classed as vulnerable - women and children.* Moreover, women are often primary caregivers of other groups who are considered to be vulnerable, such as older people and those with disabilities.

The consequences of the lack of adequate access to water for women remains an ignored topic, even on important days of observance.

To ignore this issue, is to condone the abuse of women, for this is what it amounts to:  a horrible form of abuse that keeps women in poverty, as time that could have been used for self-development and food production is lost in the pursuit of water.

It is also a form of physical abuse for those going long distances, with additional emotional abuse for those who - through lack of access to water - are forced to watch their children go without meals and go thirsty.

The South African media’s failure to raise access to water as a matter of public concern –  and civil society’s silence on the matter, is a serious form of abuse against South African women.

Until this matter is addressed, abuse against women will be a never-ending phenomenon.

South African Law

In South Africa, The Water Services Act protects our right to basic water supply and basic sanitation. Section 1(iii) of the Act defines “basic water supply” as:

“The prescribed minimum standard of water supply services necessary for the reliable supply of a sufficient quantity and quality of water to households, including informal households to support life and personal hygiene.”

Regulation 3 of this Act states that the minimum standard of basic supply is:

“The minimum of potable water of 25l per person per day or six kilolitres per household per month at a minimum flow rate of not less than 10l per minute; within 200m of a household and with an effectiveness such that no consumer is without a supply for more than 7 full days in any year.”

We also have the National Water Act which aims to:

  • Meet basic human needs of present and future generations.
  • Promote equitable access to water.
  • Facilitate social and economic development.
  • Reduce and prevent pollution of water resources.


The Constitution even goes as far as setting out the specific duties of the state to “respect, protect, promote and fulfil” the right to access of water as seen in Section 7(2).

South Africa is Bound by International Laws

Apart from its own laws, South Africa is also bound by international law to ensure the adequate provision of water.

This includes:


* Ministry for Women, Chidren and People with Disabilities - Republic of South Africa - South Africa's report to the AU Secretariat on the progress made on implementation of the AU Heads of States' Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa. July 2010



  • On 30th August 2011, it was reported that 93% of South African households had access to safe water in 2010.  However, of the 93%, only 45% had water in their dwellings. The statistics failed to take into account the distance people have to travel to reach water. Therefore, over half of the population may be lacking an adequate water supply.
    Ref: More people with access to safe water - - 1st Sept 2011



  • There are still significant differences between the different population groups in terms of households who have to use off-site safe water sources, with 25,3% of the black African population still using these sources compared to only 1,8% of other population groups. This is perhaps reflective of the fact that Africans remain far less urbanised than the other population groups in the country.
  • Eastern Cape remains the province with the worst access to water (73,9%), followed by Limpopo (83,6%), KwaZulu-Natal (84,4%) and Mpumalanga (87,4%).
  • The percentage of households who received piped water supplies from their local municipalities (not necessarily free) - 47.1%
  • Free basic water is an amount of water determined by government that should be provided free to poor households to meet basic needs, currently set at 6 kl per month per household within 200 metres from each dwelling.
  • Piped water in dwelling or on site is piped water inside the household’s own dwelling or in their yard. It excludes water from a neighbour’s tap or a public tap that is not on site.
  • 'Piped water in dwelling or in yard', and 'Water from a neighbour’s tap or public/communal tap' are also included provided that the distance is less than 200 metres.
    Ref: Non-financial census of municipalities for the year ended 30 June 2010  - Statistics South Africa  - Embargoed until 30th August 2011