Case for constitutional right to water launched on behalf of Mmangweni community

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On 11 May 2018, the Legal Resources Centre, representing the residents of Mmangweni, a rural village in the Eastern Cape, filed an application in the Mthatha High Court against the OR Tambo District Municipality and other government actors, seeking a court order requiring the Municipality to urgently deliver clean water to Mmangweni. The residents are in desperate need of water.

Since becoming the Water Services Authority in 2003, the District Municipality has never supplied Mmangweni with water. The water that residents currently drink and bathe with seeps from the ground near an open space where livestock also drink and defecate. Tests show that the water is infested with E.coli. Residents suffer rashes, stomach aches and diarrhoea from drinking the water and bathing with it. 

Collecting water consumes the residents’ energy and time. They walk long distances up and down steep slopes from their homes to the watering point and back, weighed down by heavy containers of water. One resident’s home is over one kilometre away from the watering point.  At the watering point, residents wait long hours, depending on how many people are in line before them and how slow the water trickles from the ground.

One mother of four, an applicant in the case, reports waiting from 2am to 6am to collect enough water for her family. Some days, particularly in the winter when it hardly rains, there isn’t enough water for the residents’ basic needs. Learners go to school hungry because there is no water with which to cook or they don’t go to school at all because there is no water with which to bathe.

A teacher at one of the schools reports: “I see learners from Mmangweni in my classroom who are quiet and lethargic. I ask them what’s wrong and they tell me they had to leave home without eating because there was no water for cooking….I ask learners from Mmangweni why they haven’t done their homework and they say they didn’t have time because they were at [the watering point]late at night waiting for water. I ask learners why they have been absent from school and they say it is because there was no water for bathing and they were dirty, or they say there was no water for cooking and they were hungry.” 

In June 2017, a resident-run committee notified the District Municipality of the residents’ plight.  Despite efforts over the following year by the committee and the LRC to engage the District Municipality, no water has been delivered to Mmangweni. The community now seeks a court order requiring the Municipality to abide by its constitutional obligations.

Section 27 of the Constitution guarantees everyone the right to access to sufficient water. The District Municipality is responsible for ensuring the realisation of this right for the people within its jurisdiction. 

 The court application will hopefully result in a court order directing the District Municipality to supply, at minimum, 25 litres of water per person, per day, and to submit to the court a written plan for providing water on an urgent basis to all people within its jurisdiction who desperately need water. 

Nyandeni Local Municipality is opposing the application and the court will decide on 28 June whether it will hear the matter on a semi-urgent basis.

“Sometimes, I use my sleeve as a sieve, putting it on the mouth of a bottle and drinking the water through my clothing. When I do this, I see small dirt particles on my sleeve afterwards. I also use coffee filters at home to try to clean the water. Despite my efforts to clean the water, my children still get rashes on their skin and their stomachs run. The rashes bleed when my children scratch them, but I cannot tell them not to scratch the rash. I get rashes too and they really itch. I also have to scratch them and they bleed….When my family uses up all the water in the house by the end of the day, I normally wake up at 2am to go and collect water. We need water early in the morning so that I can cook for my children and so that they can bathe. It usually takes me until around 6am to fill my three 20-litre jugs. It gets cold early in the morning so I usually make a fire by the dam to keep warm while I wait….” – Vuyiswa, Mmangweni, resident.

 “My children get out of school … and … meet me at [the watering point], say around 4:40 PM. We won’t have filled our jugs up until about 7:15 PM, and we get home around 7:35 PM. I always make sure my children are fed, although sometimes there is not enough water for everyone to bathe.  In these instances, I let my school-going children wash, and I don’t wash my younger children… After having eaten and washed, my children do their homework.  But sometimes they don’t do it because they’re too sleepy from having waited a long time for water at [the watering point].” – Nobongile, Mmangweni, resident.

 “[W]hen there was no water, I would go to [the watering point]at 5 AM. Often, I wouldn’t have finished drawing water until 12PM. The time I spent waiting at [the watering point]could have been spent sewing and filling orders for my business.” – Nobomi, Mmangweni resident.

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