Wetland woes

Dr Lutz van Dijk, Masiphumelele

Finally, on January 20, the Western Cape Environment Law Enforcement issued a directive to the City of Cape Town to clean up – sustainably – four contaminated canals that divide the Informal Settlement wetlands in the township of Masiphumelele, home to approximately 14 000 residents, more than half of them children.

The directive is not an advice given, but in fact a conviction of the responsible officials for “causing pollution to the environment and significant danger to the well-being of the inhabitants of Masiphumelele”.

The directive further demands they “diligently continue with regular maintenance of all toilets, washing facilities, standpipes, canals and wastewater infrastructure… and to respond promptly to reported problems.”

Failing to do so can result in penalties up to R10 million or up to 10 years in prison for those responsible.

What was the first official response? An apology maybe? Or a professional commitment to act immediately? No.

Mayco member for informal settlements, Xanthea Limberg, said that the City considers appealing the directive in court.

And ward councillor Felicity Purchase explained who is causing the real problem: “The problem is overcrowding and vandalism.”

For her, the problem is not that on average 70 families have to share one toilet and water tap, but that too many want to live there and some of them even steal taps.

I remember one official saying: “These people want to live like that – why do they come otherwise in numbers?”

A few days later, Ms Limberg decided that spreading even more fear and confusion was the way to go and ordered the demolition of a number of shacks without prior warning in the area “to protect the wetlands environment”.

And Ms Purchase seconded by saying: “When we requested to put fencing to protect the wetlands, the activists objected.”

What is so ground breaking in the directive issued by Dr Eshaam Palmer, director of the Environmental Law Enforcement, is that he clearly states that environment and human rights are no contradiction, but dependent on each other.

The “fence” Ms Purchase suggested was refused because it would have put the lives of hundreds of residents at high risk in case of fire as there would have been no escape route.

And the stolen taps then?

International studies in Brazil and India confirm what we can see in the wetlands informal settlement in Masiphumelele: If a minimum of human dignity is not achieved, people cannot behave dignified, but have to struggle continuously just to survive.

If 70 families must share one toilet, many people will just throw their night soil into the only option available – the canals.

However if at least a certain level of dignity is achieved, people begin to take responsibility and ownership.

In January 2014, Professor Andy Dawes and myself, backed by local experts like Steve Perrett, suggested a re-blocking of the whole area, which would allow a ratio of four families sharing one toilet/water tap while the canals would function as access bridges for emergency vehicles which would reduce the risk of fire and floods drastically, let alone crime, as at present no police are entering the area after dark.

This plan, by independent experts estimated at a cost of R25 million, was ignored by the City without further reason.

The costs for disaster relief in the same area since then (let alone the human suffering and even deaths) have been much higher as all officials will confirm.

This time, there will be no blame game and no secret plans accepted anymore.

Don’t blame the poor for disasters, but allow sustainable development to take place.

Do not divide the community further in what you regard as either good or bad community leaders and neighbourhood activists by sharing your “confidential” plans for a few new ablution blocks only with your “favourites” (let alone the magic “Greater Masiphumelele Development Plan,” which has been announced for years now but never been published), but let us work together in order to create dignity and safety for all who live in this beautiful area of the Far South.

Dr van Dijk is the founding co-director of the HOKISA Children’s Home since 2002.