A United Nations and World Health Organisation report released last week (South Africa’s national water week) has claimed a near victory in achieving one of the most important Millennium Development Goals: making drinking water accessible to millions of the poor.

According to the report, titled Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation 2012, “over two billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources, such as piped supplies and protected wells” between 1990 and 2010.

This means we have managed to halve the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water well in advance of the MDG 2015 deadline.

The report says that at the end of 2010 89% of the world’s population, or 6.1 billion people, used improved drinking water sources. This is 1% more than the 88% MDG target. It means by the time the 2015 deadline arrives, the world should be way above that target.

I live in a country where water is scarce. Actually most of the poor in places like Limpopo, Mpumalanga, the North West, Eastern Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal still can’t access fresh clean water.

So the question is: who is this report referring to? Should we be happy about these revelations?

I am asking this because I visited an area in Limpopo called Ga-Mamabolo few weeks ago. People in villages such as Ga-Maredi, Ga-Mawasha, Tshware and Ga-Mailula had drums and tins lined up in the streets. They told me they were waiting for water. They have been doing this for the past few weeks after their local councillor promised them that water trucks would come. They never came …

Among these poor people lining the streets was Gogo Martha Bopape. (She receives her old age grant from the government but is not sure of her exact age, she thinks it’s 85.)

Gogo is one of many around this old but impoverished area who tell me they have spent many months, including Christmas, without water. Electricity is a luxury they’ve accepted they may never have.

“It seems like we are the forsaken ones,” Gogo told me. “It’s been a while … we don’t get water … we are being treated as second-grade citizens by the ]ANC] government,” she added.

Ironically, as Gogo Martha was telling me about the water problem in her area, her premier, Cassel Mathale, was busy delivering his state of the province address in Lebowakgomo. Mathale claimed his embattled government was winning in delivering water, sanitation and electricity to the poorest of the poor.

“Government delivered basic water to 298 794 households in the past year… The provision of electricity has been extended to more than 83% of the households in the province,” Mathale said.

He, however, added: “A person [like Gogo Bopape] who is living in the Giyani area or Ga-Masemola in the Sekhukhune area or elsewhere where there is a shortage of water listening to us speaking about how many households have access to water may have many reasons to be concerned.”

I can’t help but wonder if we can believe Mathale’s and the UN’s impressive figures. Who did they reach if people who need these services, it would seem, still didn’t get them? Many communities across South Africa are striking often out of frustration at the lack of basic services, including water (a human right). In some areas, people still share water with livestock.

These are the people who voted for a better life they never had. But every year, the very same people they voted for give them nothing but promises they can’t keep. (Mind you, Gogo Bopape stays a stone’s throw away from University of the North, the same place where the historic Polokwane ANC conference ushered in the leaders we have today.)

In his previous state of the province address Mathale promised to reach a target of providing more than one million households with water in the 2010/2011 financial year.

We are well aware that the national government recently intervened in Mathale’s province to tackle corruption, over expenditure and poor management. It was poor management and workmanship that resulted in the failure of the R440-million Nandoni dam project which was meant to (finally) provide rural communities with access to water.

And when I told the Tshware community leader Pilot Seabi about what happened to these projects, all he could say was, “It’s sad, very hurting.”

The UN/WHO report is at odds with our department of performance monitoring and evaluation, which conceded that they are struggling to meet the water and sanitation needs of the poor. The department says there are still more than 16 million people without access to basic sanitation who still won’t have this service in time to meet the government’s 2014 deadline.

The truth is South Africa is a massive country which has little water reserves. In fact we are told that our water may not last beyond ten years. This explains why the issue of water is an emotional one and a key service delivery issue. This is why it’s recognised by the UN in its MDGs as a universal human right.

It’s encouraging that the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon concedes that the organisation’s work is not yet complete. Responding to the report, he said the the UN’s next step “must be to target the most difficult to reach, the poorest and the most disadvantaged people across the world” – like Gogo Bopape, I presume.

He is aware that victory cannot be declared while “11 per cent of the world’s population – 783 million people – is still without access to safe drinking water”. As for the MDG target for sanitation, it is still far from being met by the 2015 deadline, with shortfall numbers pronounced in billions.

One can only hope that the UN and individual governments ensure that in the next phase, people without access to water are prioritised to ensure that they also benefit from the MDGs, which were meant to help the poor in the first place. And perhaps Gogo Bopape and others will live to see the day clean water flows from their taps.


  • Isaac Mangena is a Chapter Nine Communicator slash activist. He has spent much of the past ten years of his life in a newsroom. He is a former TV and Newspaper journalist who focuses on African and international news. He previously worked for Media24 and Agence France-Presse. Isaac holds a BA Psychology degree from the University of the North (now Limpopo). He reads, writes and critique – a lot.


Isaac Mangena

Isaac Mangena is a Chapter Nine Communicator slash activist. He has spent much of the past ten years of his life in a newsroom. He is a former TV and Newspaper journalist who focuses on African and international...

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