Water mapping as community-based activist research and education for the water commons

 In South Africa, access to water is getting worse as urban water governance strategies do not correspond with lived realities. Increasingly, water is being managed in commodified ways resulting in exessive use by the upper and middle classes. In this project, with the support of the African Water Commons Collective (AWCC), 110 households who are part of 13 Water Action Committees (WAC) in neighbourhoods in the Western Cape mapped their daily water use for between 4 to 7 days. The water was largely mapped by women which is significant as we find women are the members doing the work that involves water use (Laundry, cooking, bathing children etc.). The mapping process was piloted and refined by 15 AWCC organisers prior to implementation with WACs. This enabled us to think through methods for making documenting convenient, and to examine some of the elements that would make the process challenging. The water mapping process was intimidating but organiser-members of the African Water Commons Collective supported the process and cultivated a sense of achievement amongst people who mapped their water. 

Findings relating to process: 

(i) People can work together to understand their household water use and reflect on whether they are using water ‘wisely’, not only for ‘saving’ water but using enough water for a dignified life. 

(ii)Working with concrete realities of water use can be a basis to develop voices and make connections to other parts of life: health, jobs, industry, water policies. This process can powerfully counter the dominant narrative which frames citizens as “water wasters” and surface more rigorous conversations about how we are using our water commons.  

(iii)Mapping household water also provides a foundation from which to imagine the alternatives – alternatives that are informed by dispossessed urban dwellers, strongly grounded in a critique of the present water policies and how they are exclusionary to poor/dispossessed urban dwellers. 

Through co-creating, implementing and reflecting on a common activity, community education spaces can be strengthened through a combination of relationship strengthening, capacity development, and sense making that is grounded in concrete ‘livid’ experience. People build relationships and can learn together.

People who are organised around a common goal are well equipped to undertake research processes but also research processes contribute to the organisation and relationships between people fighting for the water commons. Research and organising go together.   

Findings relating to our data: 

(i)55 of the households who mapped their water use less than 50 litres per person. Many households reported using amounts for drinking and bathing that are inadequate for a dignified life. 

(ii)Barriers to water access are complex but knowable in working class neighbourhoods in South Africa. They include: fear of high bills, pressure to save water, having to collect water from far distances, having to dispose of grey water in underserved/informal neighbourhoods, overcrowding in households without enough time or space to bath. 

(iii)Different housing types require different water use strategies, resulting in different amounts needed for the same water use type. 

(iv)Housing type and local infrastructure have an impact on amounts of water used for daily needs- for example: due to water pressure in an RDP settlement 60L is needed to flush a toilet.

(v)The points above call for more nuanced approaches to water provision in cities with housing conditions such as Cape Town.

This mapping process showed us that many people are not using the water that is needed to live a dignified and healthy life. This research has shown that there is a need for messaging about health-related reasons to use water well rather than conservation and financial related reasons for saving it. Before policies that threaten to reduce household water to a trickle flow (CoCT, 2021) are implemented, we need to ensure people who do not have enough water to live a dignified life get more water. 

The AWCC is working on a campaign to support the organisation that enables people to defend the water commons.  

Download ‘The water we need: a toolkit for household water mapping’ below.

More information about the project

Key Themes:
Sustainable Cities and Communities
Sustainable Livelihoods
Location: south africa
Principal Investigator: Anna James (Rhodes University)
Co-Investigators: Faeza Meyer (African Water Commons Collective), Ebrahiem Fourie (African Water Commons Collective), Koni Benson (University of Western Cape)
Host Organisation: Rhodes University
Duration: 11 months