In South Africa, the only country in the world where people’s right to water is actually written into the Constitution, the townships surrounding cities like Johannesburg and Durban have become hotbeds of resistance to water privatization. More than 10 million residents have had their water cut off since the government implemented a World Bank-inspired “cost recovery” program (which makes availability dependent on a company’s ability to recover its costs plus a profit)–something that never happened in the worst days of apartheid. More than 100,000 people in Kwazulu-Natal province became ill with cholera recently after water and sanitation services to local communities were cut off for nonpayment.
Water is at the heart of every fight in this country, where the population is growing four times faster than the water supply and where women collectively walk the equivalent of going to the moon and back sixteen times a day to fetch water for their families. Access to water is a deeply political issue. Six hundred thousand white farmers consume 60 percent of the country’s water supplies for irrigation, while 15 million blacks have no direct access to water. Labor unions like the South African Municipal Workers Union work with township activists to organize neighborhood-by-neighborhood resistance, re-hooking up the water supply and pulling out water meters. Such actions are a growing sign that citizens are prepared to challenge by action, when they cannot by law, injustices often originating with foreign-owned firms but implemented by their own governments.