Dying of thirst in South Africa

Africa is a thirsty continent and scarce water resources make it one of our most important commodities – and therefore one of those most open to abuse and manipulation. But it is also a basic human right. For some water equals power, and there was never a clearer example of that than when CLAW, the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s companion animal project in South Africa, started work recently in the desperately poor Syferbult informal settlement.

Who would have guessed that a simple trip to vaccinate and treat pets in a smallish informal settlement of 190 shacks would end up on the pages of one of South Africa’s biggest daily newspapers, in a criminal investigation and with the involvement of the highly influential Lawyers for Human Rights. There are thousands of informal settlements in South Africa where sometimes, as many as 5,000 people may rely on a single tap as their only access to water. In other settlements, like Syferbult, there is no running water at all – just a twice a week delivery by the local municipality to deliver a tank of 10,000 litres of water which runs out within hours. With the arrival of summer, access to water is essential for animals and people alike and it is one of CLAW’s key education concerns that owners know to make sure their pets always have access to drinking water.

Going door to door at Syferbult last week the CLAW team found little evidence of owners providing water to their dehydrated dogs and listless chickens. On confronting a young woman whose dogs were chained and without water, they were astounded to learn she couldn’t afford the clean water being sold by a local municipal councilor. She said those who couldn’t afford the US$.70 cents he was charging for 20 litres of water walked over a kilometer to “steal” dirty irrigation water from a nearby farm. It wasn’t the fact that she couldn’t afford the water that was so astounding – that’s the unfortunate reality for many in this country – but the fact that it was being sold at all. “Illegal and downright immoral,” says Cora Bailey of CLAW. And Lawyers for Human Rights agree with her. Cora tackled the problem head on. The councilor wasn’t home, but his wife was.

After initially denying they sold the water they pump from a borehole in their yard, she finally admitted to it. “It costs money to pump the water,” she said, and told Cora she and her husband were just trying to “help” the community. The US$.70 cents levy was just to cover the cost of the electricity it requires to run the pump. Within a day, The Star newspaper had begun an investigation and discovered that not only was the councilor selling the water illegally, but the water was only authorised for agricultural purposes. The local community had put up with the situation for nearly three years without complaining to authorities because they were frightened of him. The councilor’s was virtually the only potable water they had access to.

Now there is a municipal inquiry into the councilor’s activities and his water selling antics have come to a halt. As for the community they are back to relying on the twice weekly deliveries (the municipality hasn’t responded by offering more regular water drops) or the long wearying walk to fetch water from the farm. And CLAW? They will continue to offer their services to Syferbult but as Cora says: “We’re not sure what to expect. They councilor will be angry that he has lost an income, and the community is afraid of him and his henchmen. “Will we be welcome there again?” In conclusion, you might ask: “Should CLAW have interfered?” One local resident said: “It wasn’t right what (the councilor) was doing, but at least there was water.” But, as an editorial in The Star wrote, it is also the councilor and the municipality’s obligation to provide water to the people and not to exploit their vulnerability. CLAW will continue to lobby to ensure both the people and the animals of Syferbult receive the treatment they deserve. -- CP  

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Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Jan Hannah, Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project
Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project