OPINION | Freedom for all: What are freedom and human rights without potable water?

Some hand sanitisers have harsh chemicals which are released into our water resources. PHOTO: Samantha lee-Jacobs
Some hand sanitisers have harsh chemicals which are released into our water resources. PHOTO: Samantha lee-Jacobs

As South Africans began to embrace freedom, a new severe acute respiratory syndrome hit the world. Bonani Madikizela reflects on how the use of some sanitisers has had an impact on potable water.


27 April marked exactly 37 days from 21 March, Human Rights Day (previously called Sharpeville Day before 1994).

These are but some of the days remembered through celebration and commemoration, respectively. Both carry a serious message from a tragic history under the apartheid regime, which we, the citizens of South Africa and the world, would prefer to put behind us and collectively build our beloved country.

Under the apartheid regime, black South Africans were literally deprived of socio-economic rights, be it access to clean potable water, voting rights, and numerous other forms of dignity enjoyed by citizens globally.  

On the first commemoration of Freedom Day, an ever sanguine 1st black President of the democratic Republic of South Africa, Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela, addressed Parliament, where he said:

As dawn ushered in this day, the 27th of April 1994, few of us could suppress the welling of emotion, as we were reminded of the terrible past from which we come as a nation; the great possibilities that we now have; and the bright future that beckons us. And so we assemble here today, and in other parts of the country, to mark a historic day in the life of our nation. Wherever South Africans are across the globe, our hearts beat as one, as we renew our common loyalty to our country and our commitment to its future.

It is undoubtedly clear that Madiba envisioned a country of peace, zero poverty, equal access to resources - particularly water - and a generally prosperous country where unemployment is manageable. However, 27 years later, on 27 April 2021, the opposite is much more rampant, affecting mainly women, people living with disabilities and youth, particularly in rural areas. 

Rights ensure human dignity. The South African Constitution, human rights and freedom days all meant equal access to clean water by all, regardless of residential place, be it in a rural or urban area. Residents from Qunu village - Madiba’s birthplace - in the Eastern Cape, represent people with no rights across the country.  

As if the wretchedness was not enough, as South Africans emerge from the darkness of apartheid, a new severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), or simply Covid-19, hit the world.

Again, the most vulnerable are the marginalised communities who, like anyone else, were expected to wash hands regularly, but lacked access to water.

Two economies 

The pandemic once again showed the two economies in one country, where the triple challenge (inequality, poverty and unemployment) is still with us and in some cases has worsened.  

While it is an undeniable fact that Covid-19 caught the global scientists and humanity off guard, this panic has led to an unprecedented utilisation of sanitisers and disinfectants to try and save people’s lives. As in many cases of unrest, several of these chemicals find their way into virtually all shops, public transport ranks, pavements, households, and many more places. A large number of them are not even labelled, which carries huge human and environmental risks. 

READ | Steven Friedman: South Africa remains a nation of insiders and outsiders 27 years after democracy

In a hurry to fight the pandemic, two basic approaches were adopted - non-pharmaceutical and pharmaceutical interventions. Both approaches have contributed significantly towards effective management of the spread of Covid-19.

However, the greatest quandary has been the release of large quantities of chemicals into the environment over a short period, especially from the frenzied use of sanitisers and disinfectants with unknown risks to human and environmental health.

This has raised concerns for scientists mandated to protect natural resources and the general public on the immediate and long term impact of these chemicals. As a result the Water Research Commission (WRC) decided to urgently fund research, with a focus on what happens to the chemicals in sanitisers and disinfectants once released into the water resources, especially in rural areas where people need a water supply for their livelihood.

The study led by the University of Pretoria in partnership with the University of Johannesburg, and the University of South Africa was established to find the risks of sanitisers and disinfectants to the water ecosystems. It also proposed practical solutions to prevent or limit the extent of the damage in places like rivers and the impact on resident animals.

No guidelines

Preliminary findings are perhaps not surprising, as there are no set rules or guidelines in the use of chemicals in any situation.

From the market research carried out between October 2020 and February 2021, 41brand sanitisers and 57 disinfectants were identified as available in shops and widely accessible to the general public.

Based on variant data sources and concomitant analysis, a total of 72 chemicalls were found in sanitisers and 74 chemicals in disinfectants.

The substances are used for various purposes, including killing microbial organisms, moisturising, emulsification, fragrances.

Several of these chemicals were either already prohibited or used under strict control in other countries. Understanding and quantifying the likely risks of sanitisers and disinfectants arising from these chemicals to environmental life will go a long way towards their regulation and management.

Impact on our water

Indeed, you cannot manage what you cannot measure. We must act now before it is too late to prevent further degradation of our water resources and the services they are supposed to provide.  

Therefore, it is possible to rise above the current trials facing our citizens, as we did when we finally overcame the hostile apartheid system which denied so many of their fundamental rights.

We must regain our human rights to a healthy environment, freedom to swim, fish, irrigate with clean water, and access to dignified sanitation for all. Unless we urgently attend to these fundamental rights, freedom will remain meaningless to the suffering and marginalised societies of South Africa.  

- Bonani Madikizela is a research manager at the Water Research Commission, Pretoria.

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