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'We should be holding every drop of water sacred, but a lot of our rivers are dying of filth,' says Prof Tracy-Lynn Field. Picture: SUPPLIED/WITS UNIVERSITY
'We should be holding every drop of water sacred, but a lot of our rivers are dying of filth,' says Prof Tracy-Lynn Field. Picture: SUPPLIED/WITS UNIVERSITY

Climate justice is the defining imperative of our time. In Southern Africa, climate change-induced vulnerability to drought is already a human rights crisis. Adapting to a new climate reality and reducing SA’s carbon footprint requires a whole of society response, says Prof Tracy-Lynn Field from Wits University where she serves as the Claude Leon Foundation chair in Earth justice and stewardship.

Extreme weather events such as wildfires, hurricanes, flash floods and, specifically in Southern Africa, dire drought have already taken hold, bringing a train of suffering in their wake. 

The call for climate justice is a call for humanity to respond with respect, responsibility and reverence for the Earth that sustains all life, but are we listening? “We have to take care of our water resources as every drop is sacred,” says Field. “Everyone needs to get behind preparing for the climate crisis and putting solutions on a sustainable track, with a particular focus on water.” 

Wits University is at the forefront of water research & development and is working with the University of the Western Cape and the University of Edinburgh in the form of the Claude Leon Foundation Water Stewardship programme. The programme of research, postgraduate supervision and advocacy is an inter- and transdisciplinary programme that tackles current and future water challenges, with the aim of finding solutions that will benefit communities in SA and Africa.

The foundation has funded a R15.7m Water Stewardship programme. “Our aim is to expand human freedoms while easing planetary pressures. The complex interplay between environmental problems and socioeconomic hardships requires collaboration across traditionally separate disciplines such as science and law, and between institutions in different countries, and it requires academia to interact more with society,” she says.

Prof Craig Sheridan, the Claude Leon Foundation chair in water research, says: “Life flows from water and water holds all life. Water is precious, an ever-flowing interface between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and the systems undergirding human wellbeing: food production, shelter, transport, energy, play, industry and health. And yet water is not with all of us. Globally, among regions, between localities, water is a profoundly unevenly distributed resource and its scarcity prompts hardship, a loss of dignity, conflict and even death. These are some of the reasons why this research is so important in SA”

Field speaks more of the imperative behind the programme and what struck her in the IPCC sixth Assessment Report on the physical science basis of climate change, published in August 2021. “Most of the world will get wetter and warmer with one of the exceptions being our region, which will unfortunately be getting drier and hotter. This trend is already observable from the narrow avoidance of Day Zero in Cape Town, to a national drought declaration in the Northern, Eastern and Western Cape — the worst drought in this region for 100 years.”

We should be holding every drop of water sacred, but a lot of our rivers are dying of filth. While this is a strong claim to make, it is true, she says. “Sewage is a huge water pollution problem as the management of our water treatment structure is abysmal. There are 19-million people who depend on the Vaal, yet we are not managing this central life or death resource with the care it deserves. We have to face the real possibility of a Day Zero in Gauteng if this is not urgently addressed.”

Field says SA has substantial water infrastructure that is not serving people. “There are two dams in Limpopo which, together, hold 750-million litres of water. Despite that, there are people living in the Sekhukhune district with no access to the water,  as this water serves the mines.” This is a time, she says, to be clear that everyone in this country has a right of access to sufficient water. We need leaders of integrity that can put this right at the top of the agenda. 

With the social turbulence that a rapidly changing climate can induce, it will be critical to protect an open society and the integrity of democratic governance structures. A rights-based order must be protected, as authoritarian rule can easily get a foothold in crisis conditions. Some countries have already had a taste of that in their Covid-19 response. “In SA, we need to armour plate our institutions to survive drought democracy,” she says. 

There are many exciting technical solutions in renewable energy and water adaptation, says Field. Scaling these up will require collective willpower and an aligned vision with immediate goals, together with action on the ground. The fear that time is running out is real, but fear has a paralysing effect. “We must nurture intersubjective hope that humanity can rise to this existential threat and believe that commitment, compassion and love — for each other and for the intricate and awe-inspiring web of life that sustains us — can carry us through.”

She cites the dynamic work around the Climate Justice Charter by Dr Vishwas Satgar. “This work,” says Field, “is an all-encompassing vision for a provisioned future for humanity that includes addressing food sovereignty as per section 234 of the constitution. We need this kind of vision as we not only explore but demonstrably put alternatives in place, and these actions need to be massively scaled up.”

She also mentions the work of Sheridan and Prof Andrew Thatcher in S’swetla. In this neighbourhood in the Alexandra township, three years of dedicated interdisciplinary research on constructed wetlands for treating greywater (washing water) in unplanned settlements, is laying the foundation for an improved sense of wellbeing in these communities. 

Other projects in the Water Stewardship programme include app-based potable water test-strips to promote access to the right to safe water in vulnerable communities; supporting evidence-based legislative, political, and judicial decision-making to protect SA’s strategic water source areas. A project is focused on the provision of galvanising accountability mechanisms for system-level failures in SA water treatment plants.

Additional notable work is being conducted by Wits, for example on the issue of domestic sanitation by its School of Governance, through which a multidisciplinary group is working for the next 18 months to align policy briefs on the matter. 

There are two beacons of hope in the sphere of localised Earth justice and stewardship, one being “positive sounds from Eskom around greening operations” and further opening of the renewables market. The sun has hardly been tapped into and if harnessed, can unlock new energy democracy. That said, we need to ensure vested interests don’t stop these renewable energy projects from taking off, she cautions.

The second beacon of hope is the sense of democratic regeneration and solidarity that emerged in the wake of the civil unrest and looting that rocked SA in July 2021. This event showed that most South Africans want peace, not anarchy, and sparked the rebuilding instinct of the nation. 

COP26 is on the immediate horizon with high expectations of active outcomes from the forum. Yet as citizens, we have a contribution to make to right the imbalance and the future away from climate injustice. “Every degree to which we listen and act ‘for good’ counts towards how we will — or will not — claw back a state of environmental rebalance. The time for denial is over around all dimensions of climate change and we need to mobilise every resource in society,” says Field.  

Wits is an academic thought leader driving the global change agenda. In 2022, the university celebrates 100 years of making change happen and look towards transforming the future.

Find out more about postgraduate programmes in Law at Wits.  

This article was paid for by Wits University.

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