Paris, Friday, April 7, 2000

boy-pump.jpg (6692 bytes)

Clean Water Transforms Life for South African Villagers

By Brett Kline Special to the International Herald Tribune

TRANSKEI, South Africa - Xholiswa Khula inserts a plastic ''smart card'' into a slot in a standpipe, and a hose shoots clean drinking water into her bucket.
For Mrs. Khula and 400 other rural poor people in the Eastern Cape Province village of Cisira, clean water is a novelty. Until now, they have bathed, washed clothes and drunk from the river that they share with their cows and goats.
''The river is a two-hour walk each way, and the water is dirty and unhealthy,'' Mrs. Khula said. ''Now this water is clean, and the standpipes are right here in the village. Our lives have changed completely.''
A water revolution has come to the towns and villages in the Transkei region of the province. The standpipe project, a partnership that links national and local governments with the World Bank and the French water-management giant Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux SA, is the first to bring electronic-card water delivery to a rural region in Africa.
The effort, called Amanz Abantu, or ''water for the people'' in the Xhosa language, is a small step in the battle to reverse the misery of inadequate water supplies in developing nations.
The water still comes from the nearby river. But now it is pumped into a cleaning and filtering station and then through pipes along dirt roads to the standpipes. The quality meets European standards, according to Jean Pierre Mas, director of South Africa operations for Lyonnaise.
Through the partnership, the national government and Lyonnaise work with local workers to build reservoirs, purification stations and pipe networks that stretch for many kilometers through the countryside.
Lyonnaise engineers offer training to foster a sustainable water system managed entirely by South Africans. Some 30 projects have brought water to more than 600,000 mostly rural residents in Eastern Cape Province. Lyonnaise is aiming to help bring clean water to 1 million residents by 2005.
''It is not enough to have water for a few months,'' said Phumzile Mabandla, the deputy chairman of the Kei District Council. ''We want water for 100 years.''
Since the fresh water started flowing last June, the villages have seen a marked decline in waterborne illnesses. ''For rural South Africa, that is a major step forward,'' said Thembisile Jaji, president of the local water committee in the town of Peddie.
But the project has not been without hurdles. To receive water, residents must pay in advance about $2 to $3 a month for use of the electronic cards. Lyonnaise managers and local government officials feared that the project would suffer from what is known as the ''culture of nonpayment'' that arose during the years under South Africa's apartheid government.
While the former government provided modern conveniences to white communities nationwide, it forced 5 million blacks in townships and 13 million rural blacks to fend for themselves for essentials such as water. The few people who had water service in the black townships and towns in the homelands mostly refused to pay, as a means of protesting the system.
''Our studies showed that the rate of payment for whatever water services existed in the former homelands such as the Transkei was an incredible 1 percent,'' Mr. Mas said. ''The card system is a way to avoid complicated billing structures.''
Mr. Jaji of the water committee in Peddie said that residents initially were skeptical of the project.
Through a series of workshops, he said, the committee explained to people that the charges were needed for maintenance of the system.
''Once the people saw that they were not simply being taxed, as might have been the case under the old apartheid government, they were quite ready to pay,'' Mr. Jaji said.
Lyonnaise also faced the question of whether residents could afford to pay for water. The payments are fairly low, amounting to about 2 percent to 5 percent of a resident's income, according to Thuso Ramaema, international director for southern Africa for Lyonnaise's Northumbrian subsidiary.
''If people can afford to buy a beer every day, they can afford to pay for water,'' Mr. Ramaema said. ''It is a question of priorities.''
For most villagers, finding the money for water is a clear priority.
''Can you imagine that we spent our lives walking hours to the river to fetch dirty, muddy water?'' said Princess Pali in the village of Macosa, where four bright green water tanks sit high on stilts.
''We had no hope for change with the apartheid government, and now we have this,'' she said with a sweeping motion toward the tanks.
''It is beautiful. Of course we find the money.''