Equity and equality in water resource management in South Africa

Carla Higgs is a PhD environmental science student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). She received bursary support from the International Water Security Network (IWSN), through the Advanced Professional and Academic Development Program which is led by the Institute of Natural Resources (INR), in partnership with IWSN and the Centre for Water Resources Research of UKZN. Here, Carla talks about her career and her research.

I am a mid-career professional with a strong and proven record of leading and delivering a range of social responsibility, environmental, and sustainability initiatives across a range of sectors. These initiatives have had a dramatic, sustained and beneficial impact on the environment, and the lives of marginalised sections of society. Over the course of my career, I have received several awards in recognition of this impact, including a Mail and Guardian Decade of Greening the Future Award, The Chairman’s Award issued by the Institute of Waste Management of South Africa, and an Enviropeadia Eco-Logic Award.

My career has reflected my deep interest in environmental and social issues. I come from a wilderness-loving family and spent most of my upbringing on the banks of the Zambezi river at a family camp in Mongwe, where a love for the natural world was instilled. During school terms, when back in Durban, I would accompany my father on his business trips (construction site visits) into remote areas in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, where I witnessed some of the social issues that South Africa faces. After completing my honours degree at the University of Natal, I entered the working world, and soon landed a junior environmental consulting role. Yet my concerns about South Africa’s social inequalities and injustices haunted me and I knew that I could not stay in a purely environmental role. I have been fortunate to have been able to work on both social and environmental issues throughout my career.

My motivation for undertaking Doctoral studies was to ensure my career will contribute to science and South Africa in a high impact and meaningful way. I embarked on finding a Doctoral research project with this intent and am optimistic that my PhD research could be the early stages of a work that may have a significant impact in helping South Africa in achieving equity and equality in water management.

With assistance provided by the Advanced Professional and Academic Development Program, I was tremendously fortunate to secure a one-year bursary from the Umgeni Water Chair of Water, and during the last semester of 2019 I commenced my PhD research. My research seeks to understand equity and equality in the water resource management context in South Africa, with the broader view of developing indicators for the measuring and monitoring of progress in water equity and equality.

Equity is typically a stated goal of water policy, which is also often associated with equality in access to water for basic needs. Equity and equality goals are particularly important in South Africa where governance and legislation, across all spectrums, is geared towards addressing inequity, inequality and redressing past injustices. An important focus of water policy in South Africa is equity and redistribution in the water sector, which must play a role in economic growth, job creation and rural livelihoods, poverty and inequality alleviation and be managed equitably. Yet South Africa remains plagued with inequalities which have remained largely unchanged since the apartheid era.

In water resources management, the concepts of equity and equality are linked, yet are often, and erroneously, used interchangeably. Equality in access to water resources is typically associated with access to basic water and sanitation services. This is often expressed as a measure of the portion of the population with access to these services. Equity, on the other hand, is associated with the notion of ‘fairness’, is deeply complex and multi-faceted, and must consider a multitude of factors. There is no accepted definition of water equity, nor a methodology to measure its progress. There is no means of determining whether water equity goals are progressing, nor being met. This certainly has implications for South Africa, a country grappling with imminent water scarcity yet which relies on water for the growth of key economic sectors and job creation, and prioritises equity in water resources management. Ensuring that water is allocated in an equitable manner requires a distinct methodology, and monitoring to ensure progress in the achievement of equity goals.