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A community response to access to drinking water in South Africa

13 February 2022

Rural water services provision continues to dwindle in South Africa. As a result, millions of rural South Africans are without various water related goods and services that in turn, continue to negatively affect their livelihoods, health and wellbeing. The Water Research Commission launched an initiative to build a community response to issues of access to drinking water. The initiative was implemented in six villages in the Province of Limpopo aided by funding from the African Water Facility (AWF).

This initiative aims to replace the conventional single-use water resources planning approach with the community – driven Multiple Use water Services (MUS) in the six villages. It is a participatory approach to planning and water provision which supports the community self-supply, and multiple water needs. As part of its architecture, relevant government departments support the communities with managing the MUS project as needed.

South Africa’s National Development Plan Vision 2030 recognizes self-supply as an alternative water provision model deserving of funding. The AWF has granted EUR 1,340,000 funding to the Water Research Commission for the implementation of this project.

The MUS approach applies  a sustainable livelihoods model which focuses on building and sustaining, human, social, natural, physical and financial capital.  Therefore, it mobilizes local innovation in community based self-supply and beneficial use of water in an integrated manner through seven repeatable steps. These include initiation, diagnosis, visioning of a range of solutions, prioritization, selection, implementation and operation and maintenance.

This approach supports low-cost, equitable supply systems that provide communities with water for both domestic needs and high-value agricultural production. The model is designed for use in rural and peri-urban areas, inhabited by smallholder farmers, and unserved households. It further supports important cultural values and functions that are essential for local wellbeing and livelihoods and might provide ecological benefits which include flood control, groundwater recharge, water harvesting, water purification and biodiversity conservation. This is a community led process.

A comparison of time requirements of community-led design, planning and implementation versus a conventional approach of outsourcing to external consultants and contractors shows that communities do need time to ensure all stakeholders are involved, discuss, and build consensus on issues. However, a financial comparison shows that costs of the community-led MUS are lower than conventional water services models, and the likelihood of sustainability is higher.

Thus, MUS is a project of choice for improving beneficial uses of water, such as safe portable water supply, water for food production and income generation. It is hoped that this approach will be adopted to scale in line with the policies of the South African Government.