Walter Mswazie, Features Correspondent
According to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6, every member state is obliged to ensure that citizens have access to safe water and sanitation. This goal cuts across 16 other goals on health, infrastructure and economic development.
Residents in urban centres get a raw deal from local authorities who effect incessant water cuts citing non-payment of water bills and sometimes dwindling levels in the main supply dams. We cannot talk of a right in isolation because it should go with availability. We cannot talk of rights when that water is not available, as there would be no way that right can be implemented.
Water rights are entitlements that every citizen has, to clean, adequate and safe water for drinking and good sanitation. Water should be made available to every human being in a non-discriminatory manner.
According to UNESCO, non-discriminatory access to water and sanitation is regarded as a pre-requisite for the realisation of several other human rights, such as the right to life, dignity, health, food and education.
In a number of international and regional treaties, the right to water has been referred – implicitly and explicitly like during the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development and the Millennium Development Goals in 2011. However in 2010, the UN General Assembly recognised the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right, essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.
The Non-Compliant Resolutions also call on member states to provide financial and technical support so as to scale up efforts in the provision of safe, clean and affordable drinking water and sanitation to all nationals. In September of the same year, United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) also adopted a resolution in which it affirms that the right to safe drinking water and sanitation be derived from the right to adequate standard of living.
Despite the recognition of the right to water, an estimated 884 million people in the world continue to lack access to safe and clean drinking water. An estimated 2,6 billion live without proper sanitation and 1,5 million children below five years die annually due to water-borne related sickness.
In 2008, UNESCO’s former Director-General Mr Koïchiro Matsuura asserted that shortage of fresh water and inequitable access to it pose the greatest ecological and human rights threats of our time.
“Not only are water resources crucial to life itself, but they are closely linked to other global issues including energy, climate change, and the international economy,” he said.
Similarly, the potential impacts of climate change on the availability of fresh water and on water quality are considerable. Climatic disasters like droughts will obviously compromise water quality given that water is available to dilute waste water.
The purification of waste water can also be done by natural wetlands, which unfortunately have been put to extinction in some African countries, due to human activities. Activities which cause the depletion of wetlands include poor farming methods, removal of vegetation cover that hold water and destruction of water sources by wild or domesticated animals.
On the other hand, intense rainfall enhances the transportation of pathogens and other pollutants such as pesticides to surface water and groundwater thus leading to a deterioration of water quality.
Accordingly, the degradation of surface and groundwater will have an impact on the ecosystem and human health. This has been noted as a key obstacle to improving human well-being, fostering education and eradicating poverty.
Changes at global level will worsen water-related issues in arid and semi-arid regions. As the right to clean water has remained an envisaged or imagined right, UNESCO have developed integrated management strategies at local, regional and national levels to buttress this.
These strategies will set a platform for the implementation of the right to water and it should be incumbent on every national that we are trustees of water resources that should be conserved for future generations. Hence it is always critical for local communities to have practical participation in the management of water without losing sight of people’s diverse socio-cultural dimensions in their engagement with it.
In the Sadc region, including Zimbabwe, the right to access to clean and safe water squarely hinges on the availability of water sources as they are vital for the sustainability of economic and social development. Therefore it goes without saying that the region should preserve and sustain a rich diversity of natural ecosystems so as to meet basic needs related to water supplies for domestic and industrial requirements, and for sanitation and waste management. Suffice to say there is also need to increase food security through standard management of agriculture, aquaculture (fish farming), and livestock production; may it be rain-fed or irrigated.
However, most Sadc states are found wanting because throughout the region, there is no long-term policy for the development and management of water resources.
Zimbabwe in March 2012 drafted a water policy which was to give guidelines on how water resources were to be used by the country’s citizens. The policy explicitly elaborates in whose custody are water resources.
In terms of local government, the 1998 Water Act divided the nation into seven catchment areas in which seven catchment councils were set. This was meant to decentralise the management of water allocation and increase stakeholder participation. Unfortunately, the structures that were set have since stopped to function rendering the whole idea behind the Act unhelpful.
The Sadc region is home to 15 major river basins which are water courses shared by two or more countries. They include the Congo River Basin, which is 3,800 square kilometres, the Zambezi River Basin (1,400,000 square kilometres covering eight Sadc member states) to the Umbeluzi River Basin (5,500 square kilometres) shared by only two countries.
The major challenge that these water courses have is the issue of water rights as there is always potential for conflicts over the utilisation of water sources by the countries involved. This may however, bring opportunities for regional co-operation in the management of resources.
Since the 1990s, Sadc member states have engaged each other on the development of the water sector in the region.
As much as we would want smooth co-operation among Sadc member states on water rights, the region has to contend with a plethora of challenges including a mismatch between water availability and demand as issues of allocation take centre stage.
Some areas in other member states are semi-arid and thus water demand will be very high while others are arid leading to low demand for the precious liquid.
This obviously impacts negatively on water rights among member states especially those that share water courses, Zambia and Zimbabwe, in the case of Zambezi River.
Notwithstanding that shared water courses serve as potential sources of regional cooperation and economic intergration, shared water courses which cut across political authorities and cover several countries with different socio-economic conditions and complex water rights serve as a potential source of conflict unless there is effective administration in a more transparent manner.
The United Nations and World Bank findings indicate that a number of Sadc countries have the lowest human development indices in the world partly due to inadequate distribution of trans-boundary water courses. The disparity in water distribution is imbedded in the distribution of poverty across Sadc regions. For example, most people in the region earn below the poverty datum line of less than $2 a day. Therefore, there tends to be low access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation as a result of inadequate infrastructure, and poor operation and maintenance of facilities.
After appreciating the challenges at hand, UNESCO has taken a deliberate approach of focusing on specific aspects that water management authorities should look into. The management of groundwater, shared aquifer, monitoring, water law, among other elements of integrated water resource management. This will in-turn, improve member states’ capacity to adapt to global trends and manage water resources to provide safe drinking water and sanitation for all.
UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova recently stated that “Several countries share 276 drainage basins and almost as many aquifers throughout the world.”