The people shall have access to clean water

The people shall have access to clean water

By Motlatsi Thabane

Half-a-century after independence, planning and distribution of basic necessities of healthy living remains inflexibly biased towards Lesotho’s elite who live in Maseru and other urban areas. The planning of the supply of clean water is a stark example of this.

In the last decade, or so, the government initiated the Metolong water supply project with a view to supply urban centres of Maseru, Mazenod, Morija, Roma, and Teyateyaneng with clean drinking water.

As in other cases of planning that favours the urban elite, rural communities watched as the dam was constructed in their areas; and they watched as water from these dams is pumped many kilometres away to urban populations. Along the route of the pipes, villagers who live with shortage of water also watched as water-bearing pipes by-passed them to take water to urban centres.

waterIn December, 2015, villagers of Ha Motloheloa told journalists that government made them a verbal promise to allow them access to water from Metolong Dam but failed to keep the promise. In response to journalists’ query, Metolong dam officials said that, Ha Motloheloa villagers were not given access to the water because “[t]his is not an urban area”, implying, thereby, that there was nothing wrong denying them access to water from Metolong Dam. Supplying people of Ha Motloheloa with water was a responsibility of another government department, officials said.

As the cases of Ha Motloheloa and Ha Mothae residents show, communities have become fed-up with this form of planning, which marginalises them. It was as a result of their action that government was forced to install stand-pipes for them and other communities in villages along which the water-pipes pass. It is a small victory for poor and marginalised rural communities.

The completion and commissioning of the Metolong Dam project coincided with a severe drought in the country and the region. The impact of the drought—such as outbreak of diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases—was felt much more by rural populations than urban populations.

Yet, it looks like the government spared no thought for rural communities as pipes delivering water to urban areas passed, with total indifference, through the villages.

There are different estimates of what portion of Basotho do not have access to clean drinking water. In the urban areas, where less than 25 percent of Basotho live, estimates are that, less than 10 percent of residents do not have access to clean drinking water. In the rural areas, where more than 75 percent of Lesotho’s poor reside, 40 percent of households do not have access to clean drinking water.

This latter figure is high because everybody agrees that, as a country that sells water, it is unacceptable that anybody should not have access to clean drinking water.

Thus, we can say, between 40 percent and 50 percent of Lesotho’s population do not have access to clean drinking water. In practical terms, this means that, over 40 percent of Basotho—women and girls, in majority of cases—still walk long distances to obtain water. We can also say that, between 40 percent and 50 percent of Basotho are constantly vulnerable to diseases that are connected to poor access to clean drinking water. As said, many of these Basotho live in rural areas where access to community health care is not easy.

The point is not that urban populations should not be supplied with water. Instead, the point is that, there is need to change the practice of national planning in Lesotho so that it does not marginalise rural communities. Urban-bias in national planning generates and entrenches inequality.

The fact that it was villagers who forced the government to give them access to clean water means that, there was no planning for the erection stand-pipes in, or next to, villages where pipes were laid.

That absence of a plan began to show itself, in various ways, as soon as government erected stand-pipes in villages through which the pipes were laid. Two examples of this will suffice. First, car-owners began to wash their cars using this free water. Second, there are cases where poor villagers have to wait for their turn while van owners, or owners of ox-drawn carts, fill up a large number of 20-litre plastic containers with water.

In short, the absence of a plan means that there are no rules of equitable access, and the well-to-do villagers are taking advantage of this. Those who wash their cars at these stand-pipes may be doing so to avoid higher bills for water-use at their homes. Those who fetch water in large numbers of 20-litre containers may be selling it.

The danger with all this is that, in reaction, the government may come up with a plan—such as closing the stand-pipes—that disadvantages the poor.

There is need for the Government to consult villagers with an arrangement by which access to water is equitable among villagers. Without such an arrangement, access to the water is subject to abuse by well-to-do villagers and any well-to-do passers-by wishing to avoid bills for water they consume at their homes.

There is also need for the government to consult with villagers about giving them ownership of the stand-pipes from which they draw water; without such ownership, villagers might feel no obligation to stop an ill-intentioned passer-by from perpetrating acts that may lead to loss of water.

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