Rural movements tackle water crisis

The TCOE has initiated a conversation among some rural movements in the Western Cape to address the water crisis in their local communities.

At a meeting held in Stellenbosch in January, several organisations reported on how the water crisis was affecting them and specifically how poor communities were affected differently. The aim of the meeting was to explore local experiences and responses to the crisis from rural communities since to date the emphasis of the crisis response has centred on the Cape Metro.

Theewaterskloof dam running dry in the Western Cape

Comrades from the Langeberg and Swellendam regions reported on how many small-scale farmers had lost livestock as they were forced by the severity of the drought to either sell off or watch their animals die. In the Drakenstein region, activists from Women on Farms noted the decline in small-scale food production from households.

Many of the comrades noted the difference in which the drought was being experienced by commercial farmers, small-scale farmers and farm workers. This in turn highlighted the fact that restictions on water were being applied differently in a manner that reinforces existing inequality to access to water.

Poor households are forced and bullied into having water meters installed while commercial farmers and wealthier residents do not face such forced restrictions. Often the water meters are installed without any clarity regarding daily household limits, resulting in the sudden cutting off of supply once daily allocations have been used up. A representative from the Cape Town-based Water Coalition referred to the blue-top water meter devices as “weapons of mass destruction in working class communities.”

“Instead of installing water tanks for each household, the municipalities are responding with punitive measures as opposed to finding sustainable solutions to the crisis,” he argued.

Job losses are also a stark reality facing rural workers as a result of the water crisis. A comrade from the Ashton district reported that the local canning factory had already reduced working hours to three days a week. In other instances, farmers have reduced the extent of hectarage under production, or conducted early harvests of unripe fruits as they’d lost hope of any prospects of trees bearing healthy fruit this season. Both farmworker union CSAAWU and Women on Farms Project noted an escalating trend in the displacement of farm labour with farmers focussing instead on employing migrant workers.  

The water management boards are currently far removed from the people and this crisis can only present an opportunity to do things differently. There was an agreement from the meeting that people need to be organised around the common purpose of exploring alternatives. Amongst other things proposed were:

  • To convince and ensure that farmers share the water with communities;
  • Demand access to information and transparency from the municipalities;
  • Deal with climate change and drought;
  • And engage with water management boards.

Meanwhile in the Western Cape, citizens of the Metro have been drawn into a panic about the imminence of a Day Zero, when taps will in effect be switched off. However, since the announcement of the first date of April 12, the dreaded day has been pushed back umpteen times belying a notion of a crisis conspiracy to force through costly and perhaps unfeasible desalination projects.

Late last year, a number of organisations and activists came together to form the Water Crisis Coalition (WCC) to mobilise political action around the crisis. In a statement after it’s launch the body said, “The rise of the independent Water Crisis Coalition is a sign of an independent working class movement that can possibly lead a resistance to the privatization of water, which is being attempted by the state. For the first time, forces of Cosatu and Saftu are united with grassroots committees. The WCC is however contested terrain as there is also a significant presence of the middle class, who would only be prepared to fight up to a certain point.”

A critical area of contention has been that of the Cape Flats Aquifer, a large underground lake which has as it’s last remaining recharge area, the Philippi peri-urban agricultural area. The Coalition’s stance on the Aquifer is clear in its statement, “As a heterogeneous community of Capetonians, we claim our constitutional right to the protection of the land above the Cape Flats Aquifer, and its water within.”

Further extracts from the statement by the WCC explaining its principled position on several issues:

  • We reject the CoCT’s [City of Cape Town] tactics of “slow violence”; which take the form of privatisation of the land, failure to enforce the Rule of Law, and similar crisis-producing forms of intentional neglect.

  • These are violent tactics to force those who live and work on or around Philippi [agricultural area] to become complicit in its destruction-for profit, even though there will ultimately be no benefit to them.

  • We stand between the CoCT and the voiceless proletariat who will lose their livelihoods and relationships with the land and those who work it when working farms are sold to “developers”.

  • We also speak for the voiceless and irreplaceable animal, bird, insect and aquatic life that can not live without the PHA farm land ecosystem.

  • Accordingly, we claim the PHA as a site of renewal, reconciliation between people and the commons, innovation and activism for all.

  • Instead of tapping into this bountiful source of fresh water [the Table Mountain Range of spring water], however, city officials have fast-tracked enormously costly desalination projects without a single environmental impact asse[See reference here]

  • The WCC believes this is an example of Disaster Capitalism at its most deleterious, wherein democratic process and public participation have been completely ignored in favour of commodifying what should be a public good.

  • Indeed, if the CoCT can acquire an additional 60-million litres of water a day from a group of Overberg farmers, thereby postponing its so-called “Day Zero” by almost a month, surely it can find less taxing methods of augmenting the city’s bulk water supplies than those that require saddling current and future generations of citizens with huge fiscal, environmental and public health costs.

The WCC will also be demanding that Premier Zille undertake the following actions with immediate effect:

  • Desist from her fear-mongering “Day Zero” propaganda, which has caused nothing but panic among citizens, and led to the mass stockpiling of bottled water. While the WCC advocates that all citizens, businesses and farmers should drastically reduce their water consumption, the truth is that ‘Day Zero’ has recently been postponed due to the end of the agricultural season, as it was always going to be, meaning the Premier’s original calculation was either plain wrong or intentionally aimed at spreading fear and panic so as to provide cover for government decisions that fly in the face of democracy and transparency.

  • Halt construction of all desalination plants in the city and province until proper cost, environmental and public health assessments have been done.

  • Place a moratorium on installation of Water Management Devices in poor households across the Western Cape, as these are unapproved by the SA Bureau of Standards (SABS). They must be removed and all tenders related to them must be investigated.

  • Revoke all non-agricultural and silica sand mining licenses across the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA), the food basket of Cape Town and one of the main recharge areas of the Cape Flats Aquifer.

  • Begin an inclusive and participatory process aimed at redesigning Cape Town’s water supply system along principles of long-term regeneration, resilience, diversification and conservation, rather than waste, commodification and perpetual crisis.  

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