Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe

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Water at core of sustainable development

Water at core of sustainable development

This file picture shows one of Bulawayo’s supply dams, Lower Ncema at 67,7 percent full

This file picture shows one of Bulawayo’s supply dams, Lower Ncema at 67,7 percent full

Thulani Ndlovu
ON December 22, 1992 the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/47/193 through which March 22 of each year was declared World Day for Water, to make a difference for members of the global population who suffer from water related issues and to prepare for how to manage water resources in the future.

This year’s theme is “Water and Sustainable Development”. Water is at the core of sustainable development. Water resources, and the range of services they provide, underpin poverty reduction, economic growth and environmental sustainability.

The world came together in various places across the planet on Sunday to celebrate World Day for Water. Cultures in all different parts of the world acknowledge the importance of water. Water is life. Without it, nothing organic grows. Human beings need water to drink, to cook, to wash and to grow food. Without it, we would die. It is not surprising then that our Constitution drafted with national consensus entrenches the right of access to water among other socio-economic rights such as the right to shelter.

According to the United Nations Human Rights to Water and Sanitation Report, 884 million people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water.

Since independence in 1980, the government has drilled boreholes and piped clean running water to thousands of households. However, the progressive realisation of this right to water is under a dark cloud that threatens to reverse years of progress.

This threat comes from the Bulawayo City Council (BCC) who get their mandate to govern and administer the city affairs from the people here in the City of Kings and Queens. The city’s new policy to roll-out and install pre-paid water meter systems is not only unlawful but cruel and inhumane. Predictably, the city has continuously and consistently defended the installation of water meters as a necessary evil.

However, civil society and local residents have voiced their discontentment with pre-paid water meters and validly so.

Some misinformed city authorities who care only about revenue collection and have never heard about democratic governance or wilfully ignored the concept have sought to draw parallels between Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority pre-paid programmes (cash-power) with theirs.

Such comparison is misplaced and should be rejected. It is akin to comparing apples with monkeys. For one, the right to sufficient water is a constitutionally protected right while electricity is not mentioned in the Constitution. Furthermore, water has no substitute while electricity can be substituted by other forms of energy.

Water is life but humans has existed for thousands of years without electricity. Ensuring access to water as a human right constitutes an important step towards making it a reality for everyone. It means that access to safe water is a legal entitlement, rather than a commodity to turn a profit or service provided on a charitable basis.

Demonstrations and petitions by local residents have raised the fact that socio-economic rights concern more than simply the delivery of material goods. They also have an intangible dimension which is critical to enable them to fulfil their purpose as human rights guarantees. The intersection between socio-economic rights and the rights of poor people to be consulted and have a say in decisions which fundamentally impact on their rights should not be undermined.

The right to have a say in decisions affecting one’s constitutional rights is fundamental to the affirmation of one’s dignity as a human being. In November 2002, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted its general comment No 15 on the right to water stating that: “The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.”

Although rain falls everywhere, access to water has long been grossly unequal. This inequality is evident throughout the country. While piped water is plentifully available to mines, industries, some large farms and wealthy families, millions of people, especially women, spend hours laboriously collecting their daily supply of water from streams, pools and distant boreholes.

The achievement of equality, one of the founding values of our Constitution, will not be accomplished while water is abundantly available to the wealthy, but not to the poor. At the same time, ours is a largely arid country, often assailed by drought. Communities and vulnerable groups should be empowered to take part in decision-making processes so that the scarce resources can be better re-distributed.

However, the City of Bulawayo has inconsiderately excluded the vulnerable people of Bulawayo in the planning and roll-out of pre-paid water meters.

Redeeming the constitutional promise of access to sufficient water for all will require careful management of a scarce resource. The need to preserve water is a responsibility that affects all spheres of government. The UN highlights the connection between the rights of people to have access to a basic water supply and government’s duty to manage water services sustainably in General Comment 3 (1990) of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights where the Committee stated that;

“It is of the view that a minimum core obligation to ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights is incumbent upon every State party.”

It is unclear whether the city’s by-laws provide for the installation of pre-paid meters but if they do, it goes against international law and the Constitution hence their installation would be unlawful because pre-paid meters halt the water supply to a resident once the purchased water supply has been exhausted, until the resident purchases credit, they give rise to the unlawful and unreasonable discontinuation of the supply of water.

The unlawfulness does not end there, the city’s programme is illegal for additional number of reasons including but not limited to the following: BCC erroneously considers that it is not under an obligation to provide a specified amount of free basic water to residents per month. The city is bound as a local government by the Constitution in terms of Section 77 (a) to provide water to residents.

The pre-paid water meter policy of the city is based on a misconception as to its constitutional obligations, and I am unable to endorse the reasoning of the Acting Town Clerk Sikhangele Zhou that installation of water pre-paid meters is a sound policy. The city’s argument on this score must fail.

Last year the High Court ruled that city authorities cannot cut water without a court order. The manner in which the pre-paid water meters are to be introduced is deplorable, they are introduced by unlawful threat and an unfair process. Cutting of water will lead to significant negative effects on public health, safety or the environment. Their introduction violates the duty to respect the right of access to water in section 77 (a) of the Constitution and violates the duty to take reasonable measures to achieve the right of access to sufficient water, constituting a retrogressive measure, and impacting disproportionately on the most desperate.

The city’s pre-paid water policy has not taken into account the rights of the elderly who are protected in Section 82 of the Constitution. The introduction of the pre-paid water meter systems further violates the right to equality in section 56 (1) of the Constitution (i.e. the introduction of water meters results in differentiation that does not have a rational connection to a legitimate government purpose) and violates the prohibition on unfair discrimination in section 56 (3) of the Constitution.

The city did not hold a public inquiry or a notice and comment procedure before implementing the decision to introduce pre-paid meters.

The founding values and principles of our Constitution state that our nation is founded on good governance, transparency, justice, accountability and responsiveness, the equitable sharing of national resources. Time still permits for the council to consult local communities about the level, quality, range and impact of municipal services and the available options for the delivery of services.

The water supply for each person must be continuous and sufficient for personal and domestic uses. These uses ordinarily include drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation and personal and household hygiene.

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