Team H2O drove for over four hours from Pretoria to visit a rural water project, dodging huge sinkholes in the highway and waiting at highway repair blockades. The country we drove through is rich agricultural land, which in the summer will be planted with corn and soybeans, much of it with seed from the huge Monsanto operation we passed. Over 80% of the corn will be genetically modified varieties. The big farms were owned twenty years ago by white farmers – and many still are, although we were told that some of those owners are now overseas, leaving their farms to lie fallow, while other owners have sold out at high prices to government offers to purchase their land in preparation for land reform that has not yet taken place.
Squeezed between the big farms are rural townships – the only places the black farm workers could live before the democratic transition in 1994, and which still form their only option in the countryside because of land ownership patterns. We were surprised to find that these places are as crowded as the Cape Flats “townships” I described in my earlier post, and are full of the same ramshackle, corrugated metal housing. People who move from these rural townships to urban ones will know very well what they are getting into. Is there enough farm work to keep them in the countryside? If not, why are they here?
The place we visited is a little different. Whatever farm work might once have existed is diminished or gone. The huge bank of grain silos that loom over one end of the village may not even still be operating; our host was not sure. The adult men of the village are mostly away, working in the gold and platinum mines in the region; and many residents live on government grants. However, village housing is spread out, not crowded, and built of sturdier material than most township housing, urban or rural. The local transportation problem is solved with carts pulled by pairs of small horses or donkeys, which are cheap to maintain since they graze in the nearby fields.
On the border of the town is a sight I have never seen before in South Africa: an orderly set of new “RDP” houses, the basic housing the South African government provided after the democratic transition to replace substandard shacks. I have seen hundreds of such collections of houses, but never one that was mostly unoccupied, windows broken out and doors ajar. Our host told us that the municipality had not bothered to extend electricity to the new houses, although electric lines reach all the other areas of the village we saw. So of course, village families stayed in their older but better equipped homes.
The municipality appears to provide a number of services only half way. For example, In South Africa, water is a human right, and the municipality is required to provide a certain amount of it free to the village. It therefore dutifully hired a water service provider, who pumps groundwater from three borehole wells to a set of “water points” with pumps scattered along the roads. Village families come to these to fetch what they need, with their big plastic water containers in wheelbarrows.
What they cannot see in the water is its high concentration of pollutants. The nitrite levels in local groundwater, for example, are twice the national recommended maximum. Babies and pregnant women are at risk of serious health effects, and the villagers have a number of complaints about taste, color, and residue left after cooking with the water.
It is because of this invisible but serious problem that a local professor chose the village for a pilot installation of a filter system using nanostructured membranes. Unfortunately, the pilot project has fallen into the kinds of traps that can stop the adoption of even the best new technologies in places that need them. The local water service provider should be interested in this low-cost, effective filtration system. But they have no incentive to invest, because they are not being punished for providing bad water. While quality monitoring is taken seriously the cities, in rural areas, the service providers are allowed to self-report on the quality of what they are pumping and delivering.
Until South Africa takes the quality of rural water seriously, there will be a limited market for even the best of nano filters.
Author is Susan Cozzens, Associate Dean for Research, Ivan Allen College, Professor, School of Public Policy, and Director, Technology Policy and Assessment Center, Georgia Institute of Technology.