Eastern Cape water crisis needs urgent government response

Sonke Gender Justice (Sonke) is deeply concerned by the ongoing water crisis in the Eastern Cape, which directly affects communities which Sonke works with in the Amathole District Municipality. This crisis infringes the fundamental rights of these community members, including the right of access to sufficient water; the right to clean and decent sanitation; the right to dignity; and the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls. Additionally, this crisis has devastating consequences for the economy of the affected areas, which is largely agricultural.

A lack of access to water is invariably a gendered issue because it renders poor women and children of all identities (including women with disabilities) more vulnerable to gender-based violence and other human rights violations. There is a disproportionate burden on women and girls to collect water. These journeys are long and onerous, and sometimes take place at night, without well-lit infrastructure for protection and peace of mind, as some of these women and girls have to be at work and in school during the day. Without water, women and girls are unable to practice safe sanitation for menstruation, inhibiting their participation in meaningful economic and/or social activities.

Access to water is a fundamental, basic right. When it is violated, this has a devastating domino effect which impacts the enjoyment of other fundamental rights. For example, last month’s temporary closure of two (2) Eastern Cape universities, the University of Fort Hare’s Alice Campus and Walter Sisulu University’s Butterworth Campus, denied students their right to an education.

Despite persistent calls to action via correspondence and community protests, local government bodies have been unresponsive and inefficient in answering these urgent calls for improved water and sanitation access in the areas of Mnquma and Mbashe (Wards 17 and 3 respectively).

Since April 2017, Mnquma Ward Councillor, Xolisa Pupuma, has urged the Amathole District Municipality to increase access to water in the affected areas by installing water systems and drilling boreholes. Pupuma was later informed by the municipality that it was unable to increase the number of water taps in the district. Pupuma’s most recent letter, drafted in March 2019, addressed the Mnquma Municipal mayor and requested the municipal government to supply water tanks to these areas to assist in alleviating the crisis. Local government and the mayor have failed to answer Pupuma’s most recent letter and all other demands have fallen on deaf ears. This is a travesty which undermines the state’s constitutional obligation to ensure the rights of all people “to have their dignity respected and protected”.

The situation in the Amathole District is dire: villages with anywhere from 300 to 600 households have on average two (2) communal taps from which all their water and sanitation needs have to be met. It is not enough to argue that ‘93% of the South African population has access to water supply services and 76%… have access to basic sanitation services’.1 Our conversations should go further. They must be concerned with the quality of that access: is it reliable and what are the means in which that water can be accessed?

These problems are neither unique nor isolated to the Eastern Cape. All over the country, be it in urban, semi-urban or rural areas, access to basic provisions such as water, electricity and sanitation is dismal and consistently denied to poor, black South Africans. Advocacy and activism has been carried out by several civil society organisations. It is time, however, for the government to respond earnestly and substantively; a responsibility all too often falling solely on the tired shoulders of NGOs. If government fails again in this mandate, litigation must be resorted to to bring government to account.

For media enquiries, please contact:

  1. Patrick Godana, Eastern Cape Province Manager, Sonke Gender Justice – 073 233 4560 or patrick@genderjustice.org.za
  2. Ohene Ampofo-Anti, Sonke Policy Development and Advocacy Fellow, Sonke Gender Justice – ohene@genderjustice.org.za


  1. South African Government News Agency, 2019: https://www.sanews.gov.za/south-africa/93-south-africans-have-access-water-services