Two recent stories in the news have struck me for a similar reason. One is the spread of cholera via contaminated drinking water in Hammanskraal. The other is the ongoing nationwide issue of pit toilets in schools. Both speak to an appalling lack of service delivery that impacts safety and undermines human dignity. Moreover, on the level of faith, it fails to honour the gift of life-giving clean water intended for all God’s children.
Untreated, cholera can result in death within hours. As of the time of writing, 15 people have died, and there are 41 confirmed cases country-wide. This is likely to increase. Some infections appear to be related to drinking untreated water from the Klip and Jukskei Rivers. Residents of Hammanskraal and surrounding areas have been told not to drink water from taps or conduct baptisms in the rivers.
Continued inequalities in service delivery mean that people living in the poorest areas are most at risk of death from contaminated water. Tragically, due to incompetence, lack of political will and corruption, it seems that comprehensive plans drawn up to address the fact that water in the area is not fit for human consumption have not been put into action.
To further complicate the situation, many people go untreated until it is too late, and they die due to the dire state of public hospitals.
Our government committed to replacing pit latrines at all public schools by 31 March 2023. But according to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, 3398 schools still use this form of sanitation. The deadline for replacing the poor infrastructure has now shifted to 2025.
All children have a right to education in a safe environment that affords them dignity. Heartbreakingly, several young children have fallen into these toilets and have died. News24 reported that at one school, over 300 students and teachers share three pit latrine toilets which are essentially three-metre holes in the ground.
From a human rights and faith perspective, this is a travesty. In a message to the World Water Forum in Senegal last year, Pope Francis said, “The right to drinking water and sanitation is closely linked with the right to life, which is rooted in the inalienable dignity of the human person and constitutes a condition for the exercise of other human rights” and that access to water and sanitation is a “primary, fundamental and universal human right because it ensures the survival of people.”
What can we, privileged with access to safe drinking water and hygienic toilets, do? Our part is to keep these issues high on the public agenda. To keep writing and speaking about it. Some of us may even be able to mobilise our faith communities to assist a local school with funds and expertise to replace their pit latrine toilets.
What we cannot do is continue to close our eyes to the appalling situations faced by so many people because of ineffectual and unequal service delivery.
God, who gave us the gifts of life and water, is undoubtedly grieving.