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Report: Social Justice Café on the Water-Energy-Food Nexus

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Some, for all, forever! This was the guiding principle in reforming water legislation in South Africa, to ensure that the right to water belonged to all in the land. When the National Water Act 36 of 1998 was first promulgated, it not only promised to uphold this grand idea, but also promised to prioritise water for basic human needs including food production and strategic water for energy generation.

On 20 April 2022, the Law Trust Chair in Social Justice held its monthly Social Justice Café on the Water-Energy-Food (WEF) nexus through a social justice lens. The cafés aim to engage with young people on social justice issues and human rights-inspired democracy and action for inclusion, rooted in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and national development goals, to harness the youth dividend in ending poverty and reducing inequality by 2030.

This Social Justice Café felt like an urgent discussion falling just over a week after the devastating floods that cut off access to water, food and electricity for entire communities. The effects of climate change are still being felt with the 2017 droughts and floods in KwaZulu-Natal, all causing trade-offs between water, energy, and food. These effects of adverse climate are particularly devastating to the poor and further exacerbate inequality.

The WEF nexus is particularly important as these three elements – water, energy, and food – are the drivers of sustainable economic development. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), by 2050, the demand for food will grow by 60%, requiring both water and energy to meet this growing need (FAO, 2014). Sustainable development will be impossible if the basic needs for water, energy and food are not met. This will continue affecting the poor and indigent and exacerbate inequalities that already exist in our society.

This Social Justice Café of 20 April 2022 was convened to open a dialogue on the social justice aspects of the WEF nexus. The keynote speaker was Dr Michele Dalla Fontana, a postdoctoral research fellow working on the NWO-NRF funded project: Water-Energy-Food communities in South Africa: multi-actor nexus governance for social justice. The project is a collaborative effort through the participation of Utrecht University and Groningen University in the Netherlands as well as two universities from South Africa, North-West University and the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape.

The research focuses on the WEF nexus in South Africa and on bottom-up implementation through WEF communities, which are initiatives arising from the community level around the management of water, energy, and food. This research is anchored by two questions. One is how WEF resources are allocated and distributed, used and produced at a household and community level, considering aspects of social justice. The second is, what is the role of the poorest and of women in the decision-making process concerning these resources?

The study provides a truly multi-level perspective, from decision making at a household and community level – involving traditional leaders and local and district municipalities – all the way up to provincial and national levels.

The second speaker was Ms Bronwen Qumbu, a doctoral research fellow on the same project. Her focus is on African rural women’s right to water within the WEF nexus and in pursuit of social justice. Ms Qumbu’s presentation focused on the role of customary law in rural areas as a social justice issue and its effects on rural women within the WEF nexus. Customary rules pertaining to water and woman’s right are vague, but living customary law may provide a more expansive approach to realising this right. When asked about the impact, if any, customary law has on the rural women’s right to water, Ms Qumbu explained that it is because of woman’s or traditional rural woman’s role in the household. The research is looking at this from a household and community perspective. The role that a woman plays in spending so much of her time doing these household tasks, limits her time to pursue a more active role in resource management decision making,

The third speaker was Ms Nishai Moodley who had just completed her master’s degree in public sociology at Stellenbosch University. Her thesis considered water service delivery in the Enkanini informal settlement, understanding Stellenbosch Municipality as an agent of the developmental state. The Enkanini informal settlement, although having access to water, is considered a failing agent due to the huge emphasis on the financialisation of service delivery. Her research analysed the exclusion of access and the unequal opportunities regarding consumption and the allocation and distribution of resources.

In her closing remarks, Prof Thuli Madonsela noted that this conversation could not have come at a better time given the floods in KwaZulu-Natal. Floods present a paradox in the sense that in a country with a scarcity of water, people are dying because of plenty of water and improperly managed water.

With these kinds of conversations and the research that undergirds these conversations, we will begin to not only look at the social justice part of water management, energy management and food security management and the just transition aspects of it, but also at the efficient and proficient management of both the resources and the transition into justness.

This was just the beginning; in a world grappling with climate change, we need to stay focused so that no one is left behind in the decision-making processes governing the WEF nexus.


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By Chair in Social Justice team
Published 10 June 2022


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About the Chair:

Professor Thulisile “Thuli” Madonsela, an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, is the law trust chair in social justice and a law professor at the University of Stellenbosch, where she conducts and coordinates social justice research and teaches constitutional and administrative law.

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