Somkhele, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 08 April 2020. The women of Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal are in a desperate and dire state without basic water supply during the COVID-19 pandemic and they, along with supporting civil society groups, are urgently calling on government to fulfil their promises to provide them with water.
The Somkhele community has already been facing severe and often catastrophic water scarcity, created by the combined effects of coal mining activities and droughts. Now, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these communities are facing a major crisis.
For the past week the second of South Africa’s national lockdown communities in the cluster of villages that make up Somkhele have had NO water. Not even the local clinic has access to water. Most households cannot afford to request water tankers, and some do not own JoJo tanks a common method of storing water. Since the spread of COVID-19, Somkhele women are concerned that they will not be able to protect themselves and their families from the pandemic because they have no access to water.
The lack of water in the area will without any doubt increase the exposure to illness and potentially lead to the spread of the virus. Recognising that water is essential to life, a fundamental right - section 21 (1) enshrined in the Bill of Rights - and a necessity during the COVID-19 health crisis, the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu, announced a 400 000-water tanker intervention. About 4 274 water tanks have been procured for KwaZulu-Natal, yet none have reached Somkhele. The only water tanks available to communities are the ones placed by the municipality in central locations, but as of now, they are empty. One of the key preventative measures to fight COVID-19 is hand washing for 20 seconds. For the people of Somkhele, this won’t even be possible.
“We have heard again and again from radio and television to wash our hands frequently with water and soap, and that is the effective way to eliminate viral particles on our hands. The advice is difficult for us. The nearest water resource is far away from our home, we must walk for 2 kilometres. Government is failing to assist us to overcome this obstacle for many years and even now during this challenging time of fighting the coronavirus. We are worried if the spread of the virus penetrated our villages, how do we get water to use in need and stay safe?” – Medical Nziba, Somkhele activist
The history of the struggle for water in Somkhele has been well documented. In 2012, Tendele Coal Mine commenced operations in the area and disrupting communal water sources – the Mfolozi River and dam – were fenced off so that the community could not have access to these water sources. Soon after the start-up, Tendele began pumping water out of the Mfolozi River, and the little water remaining has dried up due to a series of droughts. Women in Somkhele raised their concerns about the lack of water access with the Traditional Authority, Municipality, and Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. This fell on deaf ears.
Women activists then conducted their own participatory action research on the water situation which led to an important report No Longer a Life Worth Living. The research helped the women connect their struggle for water directly to the mine’s capturing of their water resources, which exacerbated the ongoing drought in the area. The women in the area also plotted out how much longer it took them every day to collect water and the impact this had on their care role support to their families.
In April 2019, women in the Machibini area of Somkhele demonstrated for their right to water. They endured severe backlash for their efforts with 29 activists arrested and detained in jail for 8-9 days. Immediately after their release, local councillors pledged a 17-million budget allocation for water infrastructure in the area, but nothing has been done. The Mtubatuba Municipality has also failed to provide water for its constituents due to debt with local water tanker operators. Communities especially women are bearing the brunt of poor service delivery, and they demand that their right to water be respected.
WoMin, together with its other civil society allies groundWork, Friends of the Earth, South Africa, Life After Coal, Friends of the Earth International, Health Care Without Harm and Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, call on the government to make good on its promises and ensure the swift delivery of water to these communities amidst a growing health pandemic.