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Communities aren't enemies, we should harness their capacity

Published on: 03/12/2020

Exploring the links between community activism, service providers and Self-supply.

As so many global webinars these days are starting to look and feel the same, it's nice to be invited to more national and local events. Recently I had the pleasure to participate in the Socio-Economic Rights Institute's (SERI) webinar on an incredible case study from South Africa in the town of Harrismith. Ex-IRC staffer Alana Potter and her team at SERI are working hard to highlight the municipal service delivery crisis in South Africa and the challenges of implementation even when you have good law, policies and, compared to neighbours, better capacities.

What I found so interesting about this case was that it is a microcosm for so many of the issues that IRC cares about, at the same time, and all in one town. It touches on improving service levels from piped systems, reaching the poor and marginalised with services, local government performance, collective action and the role of civil society. You get most of that in the short news video below, as the case also hit the headlines in South Africa.

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The reason I got invited was to make a link between community activism and Self-supply, which is possible if stretching the definition of Self-supply. In a forthcoming book by Sally Sutton, there are many notable examples of households and communities doing things for themselves. That includes the 40% of water supplies in the rural US that are self-financed, the women's movement in Ireland that propelled the country to increase piped access by five times over 10 years, or the perhaps 300 million or more people in Sub-Saharan Africa, who rely today on Self-supply. The level of effort put in by people helping themselves tends to be underestimated almost everywhere.

Of course, we also have to point out for balance that communities will not do everything for themselves, especially if the models are externally developed and driven. We now look at unsupported community management of rural water supplies as a failure.

Harrismith is a town with a piped water network and infrastructure clearly owned by the municipality. So, it's not really Self-supply as we use the term. Stepping in to repair vital infrastructure, an alliance of local farmers and community activists got the water flowing again in the town, but not in a way that is envisioned in those fine water laws and policies. We heard in the webinar how procurement rules have generally not stopped crooks stealing, but do stop municipalities from reaching out to work with communities. The only option the municipality really has under the critical section 78 of the Local Government Municipal Systems Act is to outsource service delivery to a private company. There is a gap in allowing community involvement, with laws making partnerships complicated.

So, the community in Harrismith had to step over the line to get their water back. Doing that might be considered wrong by some , but is surely better than blocking the nearby highway, which was an earlier tactic. How to harness local capacities and the interests of the community is not only the critical issue in Harrismith, but also in Self-supply affecting those 300 million across Sub-Saharan Africa. Those efforts have been ignored while sector professionals designed and pushed what we thought were better solutions like handpumps and community water committees. There is another lesson from Harrismith too. Piped water schemes can fail and fail badly. But there are always solutions available too.

In August 2020, SERI, in partnership with End Water Poverty, launched research documenting lessons and experiences from water rights claiming by residents and social movements in South Africa. Read the blog by Alana Potter (SERI) on water rights in South Africa.

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