Emerging Forms of Social Action in Urban Domestic Water Supply in South Africa and Zimbabwe

Article excerpt


This paper compares and contrasts emerging forms of social action in urban domestic water supply in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Both countries represent transitional societies that are facing challenges of providing clean and safe domestic water to the black majority population, which for decades was denied basic social services because of a racist ideology. In the first instance the paper assesses whether there exists a constitutional provision that guarantees the right to water. It then turns to how that is enforced, and what happens in its absence. Lastly the paper examines whether the various interventions lead to improved access to safe water. In South Africa an awareness of the constitutional right to water backed by a supportive legislative framework, which engendered a strong sense of entitlement, caused residents to resort to the courts and direct action such as street protests. Similar initiatives were also observed in Zimbabwe. However, the absence of a conducive legal environment, and disenchantment with the state as a provider of social services, led residents to resort to self reliance in order to access water. In both countries social action was not organic -it tended to be championed if not sponsored either by civil society or party political actors. There was no evidence of improved access to safe water as a consequence of social action. The paper concludes that social action in the urban domestic water supply faces the common challenges of social mobilization in particular and social movements in general.

Keywords: urban domestic water, right to water, social action, social movement, emerging forms, self-reliance

1. Introduction

Rapid urbanization of the world population, as attested by the fact that 50% of the population is estimated to live in urban areas (World Bank, 2005), is worsening the shortage of domestic water in many urban households (UNDP, 2006). What is particularly worrying is that the rapid urbanization is occurring in developing countries where the majority of the 700 million people without access to clean and safe water are found (Agnew & Woodhouse, 2011). For example in Africa, the size of the urban population between 2000 and 2030 is expected to double (Stein & Fadlalla, 2012). Even more worrying is that most of this growth is occurring and is projected to occur in areas where clean and safe water is unlikely to be made available, such as in slum areas. In sub-Saharan Africa slum areas are very much the "new growth nodes" of urbanization. In some cases they account for approximately 70% of the urban population (UN-Habitat, 2003).

A number of approaches have been attempted to address the water crisis. These include the market, public, community level, and human rights approaches (Langford, 2005). In the last decade much attention has gravitated towards the human rights approach although its operationalisation remains unclear (see for example Jaglin, 2002; Sengputa, 2002; Langford, 2005; Derman, Helium, Manzungu, Sithole & Machiridza, 2007; Zigashina, 2008). This shift can be seen as an indication of the disillusionment with the privatization of water services, the flagship of the market approach, the well-chronicled failure of public water utilities (World Bank, 2004), and mixed results emanating from community approaches (Jaglin, 2002; Manzungu, Mangwanya & Dzingirai, 2012). Sub-Saharan Africa has experimented with all the approaches as observed by Jaglin (2002):

The reforms, which, over the last decade or so, have affected water services in sub-Saharan Africa are part of a wide-ranging process of economic liberalization and government reform... governments are now being urged to disengage from semi-public sectors.... Consequently, the management of water services has had to adapt to the penetration of market rules and to changes in the roles played by public and private sectors. It has also had to take on board the principles of decentralization, combined with the development of local democratic governance, which is supposed to improve the accountability of local governments and the efficiency of their service provision (Jaglin, 2002). …


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