Participatory Action Research was used to elicit local knowledge on drinking water in rural South Africa. It involved engaging people to identify the problem and systemize local perspectives into shared forms of knowledge to develop collective action to address issues identified.
Problems and Purpose
South Africa is a semi-arid country where marginalised communities in rural areas lack access to water, which is critical for health and well-being. With increasing recognition that involving communities affected with problems in problem identification, analysis, and diagnosis is key in the development of sustainable actions and improvement of health for all, participatory action research (PAR) was developed to elicit local knowledge on lack of clean safe water as a self-nominated priority and developed potential action to address lack of clean safe water in rural South Africa.
Background History and Context
In rural communities around the world, lack of clean water and sanitation are major contributors to avoidable death and disease like pneumonia and diarrhoea. The impact of diarrhoea is most acute in children under 5 years. In post-apartheid South Africa, the government enshrined water as a basic human right in the 1996 constitution and the 1998 National Water Act (NWA). Despite the NWA supporting participatory water governance, authorities lack the means to effectively engage communities and the capacities to use community- generated data and evidence in water resource planning, management and service delivery. Innovations in community interfaces with health and water authorities are therefore urgently required.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
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Participant Recruitment and Selection
PAR was progressed with 48 community stakeholders across three rural villages in the MRC/Wits Agincourt Health and Sociodemographic Surveillance System study area in Mpumalanga, South Africa. Stakeholders were purposely selected. Stakeholders comprised women of reproductive age, family members, traditional healers, religious leaders, community health volunteers and health workers.
Methods and Tools Used
A series of eight consensus building workshops were held to systemize local perspectives from stakeholders into shared forms of knowledge on the nature of the problem and develop action to address the issues identified.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Lack of clean safe water is a public health concern and was identified as priority topic by the community. Repeated and prolonged periods without piped water were reported and people resorted to using informal and unregulated sources, several of which were known to be contaminated : ‘There is no water…we are using dirty water that we get in the rivers.’ There were many reports of mobile water tankers delivering water to households provided by the municipality due to frequent interruptions in piped supply. The water tankers were not always available due to lack of fuel, delivered contaminated water and corruption among drivers was common; ‘… drivers of mobile trucks are segregating…they don’t give water to some people.’
The collective perspective of community members revealed that lack of clean safe water is a problem which adversely affects health. The implications of lack of clean, safe water included avoidable infectious disease and mortality, waterborne diseases including schistosomiasis, cholera, typhoid and other intestinal infectious conditions, as reported by the participants. Sanitation and hygiene were reported to be lower when there is no water and that people are forced to compromise, sacrifice and recycle water. Poverty and serious economic impacts were also acknowledged, and that having to purchase water from tanker drivers is unaffordable in areas of high unemployment and welfare dependence.
Participants overwhelmingly related lack of water to poor planning by water authorities, municipality and service providers, and corruption was also highlighted as being common. Lack of awareness of accountability mechanisms among community leaders such as the Community Policing Forum and the Community Development Forum, lack of infrastructure maintenance and delays in maintenance and vandalism and limited community ownership were also identified as causes of lack of water. Persistent droughts, high temperatures and low rainfall were described as environmental causes.
Participants identified actions that needs to be taken to address the water issue. Access to taps in houses was unanimously agreed as an overall goal. Participants identified improved planning to include: inventories of households without water; detailed monitoring and reporting of water-related challenges; fund-raising to support monitoring, planning and infrastructure development; and fairer allocation of resources through multisectoral deliberation and partnerships for infrastructure development and maintenance. The importance of closer working relationships between community, local government and municipalities was therefore seen as necessary before engaging higher level stakeholders.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
This process created spaces for co-learning, raised awareness and participants were enthusiastic about the approach. Participants reported feeling valued and respected when they recognized that their contributions, voices and ideas were captured. PAR discussions facilitated future collaborations and linkages with the researchers and community. A key theme that emerged from PAR discussions was that solutions to water challenges can only be achieved when organisations work together.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Participants reiterated the importance of working together and collaboration among communities, local government and local municipalities to solve local water problems before engaging higher-level stakeholders. Collaboration was highlighted as key to address challenges of accountability among different stakeholders as there is need to improve accountability among community and water service providers at local level. Due to the cross cutting nature of water as a resource, the value of multi-sectoral partnerships was recommended. Why was it important to engage the community as equal partners? Using a participatory approach is one of the guiding principles set out during the International conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin in 1992. Involving both consumers and policy makers in planning and implementation of water projects is key for effective management of water.
Hove, Jennifer, Lucia D'Ambruoso, Denny Mabetha, Maria van der Merwe, Peter Byass, Kathleen Kahn, Sonto Khosa, Sophie Witter, Rhian Twine. 2019. "Water is life’: developing community participation for clean water in rural South Africa." BMJ Global Health.
The original submission of this entry was adapted from © 2019 Hove et al. https://gh.bmj.com/content/4/3/e001377 under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits reuse. Please refer to the revision history for a detailed account of subsequent edits and additions made by the Participedia community.
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