Water apartheid

Patrick Bond pbond at SPAMwn.apc.org
Fri Jan 26 00:15:12 MST 2001

I don't have internet at home, and will check this article later...

But just a quick truth-in-science warning. Four years ago I served as
Asmal's budget advisor. It was an interesting and very brief
experience, once it was clear that he was the ANC's greatest

> Thanks to improved sewer systems, water-related
> diseases such as cholera and typhoid, once endemic throughout the world,
> have largely been conquered in the more industrial nations.

This category used to include South Africa, which tested its own
nuclear weapons during the late 1970s and established a formidable
mining-related industrialisation infrastructure during the 20th
century, such that the white folk lived, on average, better than

> Massive cholera outbreaks appeared in the mid-1990s in
> Latin America, Africa and Asia.

And now over 30,000 cases in South Africa since August.

> At the outset of the new millennium, however, the way resource planners
> think about water is beginning to change. The focus is slowly shifting back
> to the provision of basic human and environmental needs as the top
> priority--ensuring "some for all, instead of more for some," as put by
> Kader Asmal, former minister for water affairs and forestry in South
> Africa.

The author has been bamboozled by rhetoric (corrected later in
his piece? or, more likely, amplified, Louis?). This was the totally
artificial introduction of "width versus depth" in the SA water
debate. This allowed Asmal's neoliberal staff to introduce a few
communal taps with consumption limits of 25 litres per person per day
MAXIMUM (enough for a couple of flushes); our historic
social-movement demands were for 50 litres per person per day
MINIMUM, within each household. When Asmal's incompetent rural
communal taps broke down en masse, or when water supplies were cut
because impoverished communities couldn't pay marginal-cost pricing
(full cost-recovery) demanded by the World Bank and its
fellow-travellers, cholera came on like a veld fire.

Context is crucial. Black South Africans directly consume about 2
drops out of every 100 that fall from the sky. The capital cost of
putting taps and sewage systems (including septic tanks) into every
SA home -- plus electricity, roads, stormwater drains and
streetlighting -- was, we calculated, R160 billion (in today's money,
about $20 bn). Spread over a decade, the budget could have handled
it. Instead, the government, mainly advised by the World Bank, went
for a piddling infrastructure plan (which on paper costs R130 bn but
which they're not implementing) and adopted the philosophy of status
quo water use. That means building the largest dams ever in Africa
(Lesotho) to bring water across 42 km of mountains to Jo'burg so rich
whities can maintain pristine english gardens, wash their cars and
refill their swimming pools (activities which take 7 drops out of
every 100 that fall from the sky, say the studies). Asmal ultimately
signed off on "buliding new facilities," at an additional cost (in
the Lesotho dam he commissioned) of R10 billion, notwithstanding
ecocatastrophe that seems certain downstream (actually, the Lesotho
river that's being reversed will not even be a stream; it'll be a
"crack in the earth" according to one scientist just interviewed).

> To accomplish these goals and meet the demands of booming
> populations, some water experts now call for using existing infrastructure
> in smarter ways rather than building new facilities, which is increasingly
> considered the option of last, not first, resort. The challenges we face
> are to use the water we have more efficiently, to rethink our priorities
> for water use and to identify alternative supplies of this precious resource.

"Efficient" is a scary word here, though. You quickly get into the
terrain of cost-benefit analysis and contingent valuation, and at
the bottom of that slope is Larry Summers insisting that the economic
logic of dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is

(We treat all these themes in excruciating detail at
http://www.queensu.ca/msp ) (And when we demanded that the World Bank
discontinue its Lesotho dams until the Jo'burg water system was
revolutionised, Asmal wrote some seriously thuggish letters, to our
township comrades and even to little old me, and because he was head
of the World Commission on Dams, quite an embarrassment to the
sponsors of the WCD at the World Bank, the Bank's internal Inspection
Panel refused to investigate, instead endorsing Asmal's "some for
all" -- indeed it was the former manager of the Brundtland
Commission, Jim MacNeill, who made this finding, which forever
confirmed in my mind the need to a) avoid use of "sustainable
development" -- Brundtland's contribution to development discourse --
and b) never have illusions you can reform the World Bank from the

> This shift in philosophy has not been universally accepted, and it comes
> with strong opposition from some established water organizations.
> Nevertheless, it may be the only way to address successfully the pressing
> problems of providing everyone with clean water to drink, adequate water to
> grow food and a life free from preventable water-related illness. History
> shows that although access to clean drinking water and sanitation services
> cannot guarantee the survival of a civilization, civilizations most
> certainly cannot prosper without them.
> Full article at: http://www.sciam.com/2001/0201issue/0201gleick.html

Patrick Bond (pbond at wn.apc.org)
home: 51 Somerset Road, Kensington 2094 South Africa
phone:  (2711) 614-8088
work:  University of the Witwatersrand
Graduate School of Public and Development Management
PO Box 601, Wits 2050, South Africa
work email:  bond.p at pdm.wits.ac.za
work phone:  (2711) 717-3917
work fax:  (2711) 484-2729
cellphone:  (27) 83-633-5548
* Municipal Services Project website -- http://www.queensu.ca/msp
* to order new book: Cities of Gold, Townships of Coal --

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