Building better water resilience through Community Participation

The 22nd of March was the UN Water’s annual World Water Day and in 2021 the theme is centered on valuing water – what does water mean to you – and what better way for a sector to find out what water means to the people of South Africa then regular and constructive engagements with the very communities that it services. The notion of normalizing and supporting community engagement is something that has also been prescribed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through SDG6b which explicitly “…aims for the participation of local communities in water and sanitation planning and management, which is essential for ensuring that the needs of all people are being met”. 


It was with SDG6b in mind that the Water Institute of Southern Africa Gauteng Branch (WISA-GP) decided to host an online webinar on the 30th of March, 2021, in honor of World Water Day under the theme: Building Better Water Resilience Through Community Engagement. This webinar sought to bring together representatives from the various groups representing the national water sector including the public sector, the private sector as well Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), who would be able to present and discuss the current status quo of community engagement in the sector as well as solutions to any challenges to meeting SDG6b by 2030. 


The first thing that stood out during the presentations as well as the subsequent round table discussion was that community engagement in South Africa was not as strong as it could or should be. Mariette Liefferink, CEO of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, was the most vocal regarding the gaps in the systems currently in place. Ms. Liefferink explained that through her organization’s long history of community engagement projects they have found that, while the community forums have been put in place by the public sector, participation in these forums were severely lacking which according to her was due to centralized meeting points that were ill attended due to the technical and financial restraints of the very communities that the forums were supposed to represent. 


However, the lack of community participation was something that did not go unnoticed by the Government as the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation (DWS) representative Mr. Dennis Behrmann (a Specialist Advisor involved in Business Intelligence Projects for DWS who in turn was presenting on behalf of Mr. Bheki Mbentse, DWS Director of Urban and Rural Water Management, who was unable to attend) in their presentation noted that while South Africa has done relatively well in international indicators that track the number of clearly defined procedures for community participation, recent Global Analysis and Assesment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS) reports  indicating low participation by service user was of concern to the Department. Mr. Behrmann admitted that you “can’t say that people have participated just because policies are in place. What if these policies are not implemented?”. In response, the DWS has started working on creating additional indicators for SDG6b, with the assistance of the Water Research Commission (WRC), as well as establishing new and broadening old quantitative and qualitative measures to collect data on community participation indicators.  


While it is heartening to see the Department actively engaging in identifying flaws in the current community participation system and actively working on solutions, there are also other role-players in the local water sector that can and should play an active role.  Sasol, as the private sector representative at the webinar, presented their own multitude of community engagement initiatives, indicating that community participation was a key part of their Corporate Water Stewardship approach. Mr. Rivash Panday (Specialist: Sustainable Water – SASOL) noted that the company has also taken a “beyond-the-fence-line” stance regarding water sustainability in accepting that “water savings for the catchment can be improved in a more meaningful way by saving water beyond our factory fence line”. However, Mr. Panday did caution that currently there are very few business case incentives for increased community participation by the private sector as a means to build better local water resilience, something he believes should be addressed in the near future in order to normalise this approach by other companies.  


Lastly it was Romy Antrobus-Wuth, a Stewardship Ecologist part of the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere initiative who highlighted various innovative strategies and initiatives which they themselves have successfully implemented as an NGO when engaging stakeholders and communities. The nomination of 200 community ambassadors based within local communities, daily monitoring of the state of community water sources and pollution through various WhatsApp groups, as well as building capacity within Traditional Authorities are just some of the approaches the Kruger to Canyons initiative has recently implemented. These examples are welcome in that they serve as a possible best-practice toolkit for other water sector stakeholders who can incorporate similar approaches when engaging with communities rather than having to reinvent the wheel themselves. 


In conclusion, the various presentations and discussions recorded during this recent webinar highlighted the following important aspects regarding active community participation throughout the national water sector:

  • Technical and financial limitations are stifling community participation
  • Government is aware that merely having adequate community participation policies in place are not enough when people are failing to participate.
  • New indicators and accompanying qualitative and quantitative measures to collect data on community participation are being developed by DWS and the WRC.
  • Private industry needs to be incentivized to develop and implement a “beyond-the-fence-line” approaches to water sustainability that incorporates active community participation
  • Rather than re-invent the wheel, stakeholders in the sector should look to innovative community engagement strategies and initiatives that are already being successfully implemented by NGOs such as the Kruger to Canyon and Federation for a Sustainable Environment. 


And while discussions where primarily focused on community participation as defined as the end user of water services, this webinar and the deep discussions that were engaged did also highlight the need to strengthen a different kind of community participation: all the various stakeholders within the water sector regularly coming together to discuss and seek solutions to some of the biggest problems facing the South African water sector today. Together we are stronger and together we can change the sector for the better for all communities.