‘Tapping’ into state-society linkages: looking at perceptions of the state through the lens of water access – Fellows’ Seminar by Leila Harris

20 October 2016

“I read everyday experiences and narratives of water access and governance as a key lens through which to consider states and stateness, evolving state-society relations, and shifting citizen subjectivities,” said Leila Harris.

“I’m interested in examining the effect of differentiated access to water on citizenship and politics,” she continued. “And what this means for re-fashioning politics and rethinking democracy.”

harris-1 STIAS Fellow Leila Harris during her seminar on 13 October 2016

Prof. Harris is from the Institutes for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, and Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice of the University of British Columbia (UBC) and is currently a STIAS fellow, where she presented her project with the goal of publishing it as a book. The project is based on ongoing work with students from UBC, and colleagues from other institutions and non-governmental organisations, and is based on fieldwork, surveys, interviews and focus groups conducted in underserved areas of Cape Town, South Africa and Accra, Ghana; as well as with government officials, activists and others engaged with the questions of water access and governance in these sites. The work is both qualitative and quantitative, has included a participatory video project, and has a number of student theses associated with it to date (see www.edges.ubc.ca for more information and access to theses and publications in print).

The work considers the uneven terrain of implementation and politics related to the human right to water which was recognised by the United Nations in 2010; is specifically included in the Constitutions of a number of countries (including South Africa); and, is related to Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals—to provide safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030.

“I’m specifically interested in understanding what meanings people ascribe to access to water in their everyday lives and experiences, and how this affects their ideas around citizenship and the roles and responsibilities of the state,” said Harris.

“I believe that conceptually and methodologically everyday citizen perspectives are key for critical perspectives on state governance processes and effects,” she continued.

“Infrastructure is an important site for the re-negotiation of state/citizen dynamics,” said Harris. “I’m interested in understanding how services and infrastructure conditions are used for ongoing negotiations between states and citizens, and in understanding the pathways for redress.”

“Both Ghana and South Africa have interesting histories when it comes to water access,” she said. “Obviously in South Africa this is very much shaped by the apartheid history and, despite many improvements since 1994, remains a focal point of active protests across the country.”

“In Accra, access is uneven, and the piped water system has been managed through a rationing system in addition to heavy reliance on informal networks and vendors for access. There was also an unsuccessful attempt to privatise the water system which achieved very little in a five-year period,” she continued. “It is estimated that in Accra one third (or more) of the urban population does not enjoy regular access to safe and affordable water. In the sites we implemented our survey in 2012, nearly 50% of the population relied on vendors.”

Both cases (Accra and Cape Town) are therefore interesting sites for study. In South Africa, two sites were chosen in the Western Cape for the 2012 survey work (and some follow-up field work) – Phillipi and Khayelitsha.

“In the Western Cape an estimated 88% of the population has access to piped water, while up to 97% have access within 200 metres of their dwelling,” said Harris. “So there is relatively good access and good quality yet the issue remains highly politicised.”

“In Khayelitsha there is clear differentiation in access between inhabitants of so-called RDP houses (built in the post-1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme) and shack dwellers.”

The details of the right are not specified in the South African Constitution which means it is open to interpretation and has been the subject of court cases. Generally, internationally, 50 litres per day is considered to be a norm in terms of what is required, but in South Africa the Free Basic Water Policy is based on the provision of 25 litres (per person per day). As other commentators have suggested, “The minimum has also become the maximum in effect,” said Harris, “as water is at times cut off after the basic monthly minimum is used so that people won’t go into debt.”

“The interesting finding of our survey, which involved nearly 500 respondents in Ghana and South Africa, showed that most respondents in the South African sites agreed that water was easy to access and that they thought the water was of good quality, however, access and quality did not equate to satisfaction.” Satisfaction was considerably lower than the numbers for ease of access and quality, posing some intersting puzzles for consideration.

Aspiring to true equity

“Ideas of equity remain central in South Africa and the aspirational component is important,” she continued. “It’s about having the same standard of access as others. Access to water and sanitation are part of the promise of redress and equity in South Africa. It’s not just about basic access but about reducing inequalities – particularly visible inequalities.”

In this way, “Water is a clear symbol of inclusion, differentiation and inequality. People don’t want to accept anything less than the standards they see in the suburbs – as such, equity is key to understanding, and potentially realising the human right to water in this context.”

“As long as inequalities remain visible you will have lack of trust. The data also suggest that for South Africa (although not for Ghana) there is a significant relationship between water quality and satisfaction and trust in government,” continued Harris.

Despite whatever progress has been made, “Respondents in both countries agreed strongly that they felt government should be doing more.”

“Obviously this work is in small samples in very specific, focused communities with interesting political histories, specifically chosen as they are comprised of marginalised, relatively impoverished communities living with these daily realities,” said Prof. Harris. “But I think that, theoretically, the work speaks to broader interests related to differentiated and uneven services and infrastructures as key to both perceptions regarding the role or legitimacy of the state, as well as an individual’s own sense of citizen responsibility.”

“The analysis shows some of the meanings attached to differentiated access—apart from basic needs,” said Harris. Rather than viewing the human right to water as being about access to specific amounts of water, in a minimal sense, a key argument of this work is that “the right to water is connected to negotiations around a whole host of socio-political dynamics.” The focus of the talk highlighted specifically some of the issues and negotiations around the state and stateness, but the broader project is also interested in shifting citizen subjectivities, engagement in community governance and linked processes.

Responding to questions about the focus on equity and service delivery in the South Africa context, Harris highlighted: “In South Africa right now the contestation in many sectors is largely around that question, which has resulted in service delivery and equitable access as a key focus for protest and politicisation. These are the big questions of the day – how should the poor, or historically marginalised black and coloured communities, be accomodated in a new democratic society,” she continued.

“What equity is, and should be is probably the biggest political question of the day in South Africa. This is precisely why we need to centre our discussions of the human right to water, and its implementation with a focus on equity.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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