By Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA)
Today is World Water Day which is running under the theme, ‘Valuing Water.’ This theme is significant as it puts on the spotlight the value of water in our daily lives. As we commemorate the day adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 22, 1992, we reflect on the value of this precious resource.
It is saddening to note that one in three people live without safe drinking water and by 2025, half of the global population will be living in areas where water is scarce. As we work together to support the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal six (6) on water and sanitation for all by 2030, we must implement sustainable use of our water resources.
The UN notes how those who control the value of water also control its utilisation. The devastating COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the fundamental aspect of valuing water by encouraging frequent washing of hands with soap or with an alcohol-based sanitiser. However, it is saddening to note how water resources are facing extreme threats from a growing population and the worsening effects of climate change and other anthropogenic activities such as undertaking developments in wetlands and can be equated to humanity ‘waging war on nature.’
ZELA for improved service delivery.
The service delivery sector has its fair share of problems that require intervention. Among several challenges facing the management of water resources is the pollution of water bodies which has led to the loss of sources of livelihoods and ecosystems. Rivers, dams, and underground water sources are heavily polluted and, in some cases, over-exploited thereby depriving downstream communities of access to adequate water resources.
This is a violation of the right to water. Irresponsible mining operations and subsequent pollution of the same rivers downstream exemplifies the magnitude of the problem. While the law provides the right to water and equitable distribution, in practice many communities do not have access to clean, safe, and adequate water. Some villagers walk long distances to access clean water. It is against this background that ZELA is using action-based ways of intervening to help protect the rights of communities.
Another challenge is that there are limited knowledge and capacity amongst residents to demand the adequate and equitable provision of services. Sometimes knowledge is resident within the resident associations themselves and not the generality of the people. This challenge is concomitant to limited community awareness of the right to live in a clean and healthy environment, access to information, and participation in decision-making processes. It is against this background that ZELA is capacitating residents to actively identify, monitor, and act on cases of environmental injustice related to service delivery and unaccountable municipalities.
Mining, due to the nature of its operations, has been linked to large-scale impacts that include siltation, chemical pollution, and heavy metal pollution. All these arise as by-products of the mining processes. Thus, it is recommended that the necessary infrastructure to process all wastewater from the mines should be put in place by the mining companies, and as part of their community responsibility, the mines must facilitate the clean-up process. The problems of water quality and environmental degradation need to be addressed before there is irreparable damage to the environment and people’s livelihoods.
Two decades of using the law to protect and conserve the environment.
In the past two decades, ZELA has managed to use its expertise in environmental justice and law, in implementing several social accountability activities aimed at promoting accountable and democratic governance systems at the local level.
In 2020, ZELA through its Litigation Unit filed a public interest case at the High court of Zimbabwe for a structural interdict against Chitungwiza Municipality. The brief facts of the case are that dating back from as far as 2013, Chitungwiza Municipality had been responsible for water pollution within its jurisdiction by causing the discharge of untreated sewer into the water bodies that provide drinking water to the area.
High Court of Zimbabwe Justice Mangota on Thursday 17 December 2020 granted an order in an application filed by ZELA as an Applicant for public interest purposes. The order interdicts Chitungwiza Municipality from releasing sewer into water bodies, watercourses, streams, tributaries, or any part of the environment. Further, the Municipality was compelled to, within three months of the order, repair or otherwise upgrade its water treatment plants and sewer systems to ensure proper treatment of effluent before discharge into the environment and water bodies. The Environmental Management Agency was directed to conduct compliance assessments within three months and submit a report to the Registrar of the High Court.
The water and sanitation crisis demands a holistic, systemic, and multilateral response. Water critically matters to deliver almost all the other SDGs and is essential for resilience to climate change. Section 77(a) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees the right to safe, clean, and potable water. This provision reflects the country’s obligations to provide water to the citizens as required in the human rights instruments that the country has ratified. Therefore:
- The Government must protect the right to water for its citizens by preventing any interference that makes it impossible for the citizens to enjoy this human right;
- The central Government and local authorities have a duty to provide clean, safe, and potable water. The citizens on the other hand must pay for the rates and be guaranteed that service delivery is not interrupted.
- Poor service delivery by local government authorities is emerging as a major threat to the right to water. This is conceivably likely to continue in the foreseeable future unless far-reaching democratic local governance reforms and significant resources are invested in the sector to ensure that households have access to water. Such actions should be underpinned by proper management of resources and adoption of social accountability measures in service delivery.
In the coming years, ZELA remains determined to use environmental and social service delivery issues as a window to promote good governance and democracy at the local and national levels.