The lack of water in schools in South Africa jeopardizes the educations of thousands of students. AMANZI is working to change that.
In South Africa, a country of extremes, water is both an enabler and a destroyer. Prolonged droughts pose a threat to human health and sanitation, undermine agricultural yield, threaten the stability of schools and health clinics, and lead to the outbreak of conflict over a limited resource. In recent years, water shortages in Cape Town and other parts of South Africa have drawn global attention to the country’s water crisis as communities sit on the brink of having no water at all.
While more reliable access to water would have a largely positive effect across different sectors within South Africa, there is such a thing as too much water. Just this past spring, water inundated the country leading to widespread flooding and pushing President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a national state of disaster. In June 2023, flash flooding in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province destroyed homes and led to several deaths.
“There is not a single day in South Africa where you are not face-to-face and eye-to-eye with climate changes, starting by turning on the faucet and not knowing whether water is going to come out,” says Julia Heemstra. “In the community where I grew up, there are currently sections that have gone over a month without water. And the region where my family home was located often goes 5 days or more without access to fresh water.”
Julia Heemstra, a subject matter expert, has more than a decade of experience working on humanitarian issues in South Africa. Currently, she is a Research Associate and part-time lecturer in the Integrated Water Management honors program at Rhodes University, in the Eastern Cape. Heemstra’s upbringing in South Africa highlighted the country’s ongoing water issues and prompted her to focus her professional life on addressing water scarcity and subsequent issues in her home country.
The issues of water in South Africa stem both from inadequate rainfall and poor resource management. South Africa is an arid country to begin with, receiving an annual rainfall that is nearly half of the global average. It ranks 29th in terms of driest countries. While dry to begin with, South Africa is receiving even less precipitation as a result of anthropogenic climate change.
The need for water is present in every sector and community. And, as we know, water is a vital resource for mere health and survival. It’s also a vital resource for education, but we may not always consider it as such. Without water, however, schools can be forced to reduce instruction hours or even close, jeopardizing the education of thousands of students.
Through growing up and working in South Africa, Heemstra began to recognize the importance of education for creating opportunities for rural South Africans.
“What we often see in the Eastern Cape of South Africa is a very distinct correlation between education leading not only to opportunity and escape from extreme poverty but also a very distinct line into the possibility of becoming a future leader within South Africa,” explains Heemstra. “The statistics are really astounding: if a child does not graduate from high school, that student has an over 50% chance of unemployment over the course of a lifetime. Yet, if the student actually graduates from high school that drops to under 26%. And even more powerfully, if that student qualifies through excelling at the matriculation exams to attend the local university, (which is subsidized for impoverished students coming out of this region) their chances of unemployment for life drop to under 6%.”
While clear that access to education is important for creating opportunities, ongoing water shortages in South Africa are threatening the stability of education in certain regions.
“In this region of SA, if a school goes too long without having water, the school, at the very least, has to reduce instruction hours until access to water is obtained again. Oftentimes the school is just closed if there’s too long without water, and it may not be reopened,” explains Heemstra.
What Heemstra is articulating is a progression by which water enables more stable education and education enables opportunity. But ongoing water scarcity across the country and the looming threat of exacerbated droughts due to climate change make stable education a tenuous concept in parts of South Africa.
Motivated to help enable access to education and aware of the importance of water in that equation, Heemstra founded AMANZI in 2022. “Amanzi” is the word for water in the isiXhosa and isiZulu languages. The cross-language use of the word signifies the universal importance of water in this region and is symbolic of how fundamental access to water is.
AMANZI is an organization that partners with schools in South Africa to develop sustainable water solutions and enable the schools to stay open, even through times of drought. Specifically, AMANZI focuses its work on the Eastern Cape where, in some rural communities, more than 60% of the households fall under the international poverty line and where the unemployment rate is often greater than 80%. For children in these communities, education is the best means toward employment and future opportunities but, as of 2021, 199 Eastern Cape schools lacked water for sanitation, which means that 63,676 students do not have access to water for sanitation while they are at school. These schools, already in a precarious state, are devastated when there is further water scarcity.
AMANZI is hoping to flip the script by working with schools in the Eastern Cape to better access and conserve water resources to enable safe and stable educational environments for all learners.
“Really what we are about is using water as the conduit to opportunity,” explains Heemstra.
As different institutions have different resources and diverse environmental and social contexts, AMANZI’s work varies between schools.
“One of the core values of AMANZI is to not make decisions for the schools but rather to work in partnership with the principal, the school governing bodies, the teachers, to enable them to determine what solutions will be best for them,” says Heemstra. “By virtue of my history in the region and from working with more than 13 schools, I’m aware that each school’s needs and the resources they bring to the table are unique.”
As a relatively new organization, AMANZI is just getting started, but already has had a large impact on water access and the stability of education in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Over the course of a year, AMANZI worked with a school–Riebeeck East Combined School (RECS)–to implement advanced water harvesting practices (using decades of historical data and future modeling), install waterless toilet blocks, a greywater recycling system for handwashing water that can redistribute that water for irrigation of the school’s garden, and a three part water filtration system for water purification. Furthermore, AMANZI added a total of 75,000 Liters of water storage at RECS to help conserve water through times of drought. The culmination of this work not only guarantees more stable water access and proper sanitation for 93 students and 10 staff that RECS serves, but also will provide enough water access that each student can take 5L of purified water home to their families each day.
While much of AMANZI’s work at RECS did require some new construction, AMANZI is committed to climate smart water solutions. So, much of the work relied on technologies that harness the co-benefits of different materials.
Given that climate change is expected to exacerbate water issues in South Africa, AMANZI works with schools to identify climate-smart ways to increase water access. One of their major climate-smart offerings is the use of biomass-insulated concrete. Invasive plants pose a huge threat to South Africa’s water resources and biological diversity. Often, the approach to dealing with these invasive species is to pull them up and burn them, which only adds carbon to the atmosphere.
AMANZI has partnered with NES Consult & Associates/Natural Homes Pty Ltd to implement their AGREMA certified carbon negative concrete into ongoing school projects. This concrete utilizes the biomass from local invasive species and comprises up to 25% recycled plastic. This means that AMANZI can support school construction projects in ways that harness the co-benefits of carbon sequestration and water savings. Furthermore, the carbon-negative toilet blocks also contain a biochar greywater recycling system which enables the water from hand washing to be reused for irrigation on the school food garden.
Another way that AMANZI helps schools save water and access more water is through switching to EcoSan waterless toilets which are hygienic, safe and sustainable, closed-loop systems that do not rely on water. Given that flushing often amounts to a school’s largest use of water, switching to waterless toilets radically changes a school’s water needs. By eliminating water from toilet flushing, AMANZI helps schools save vast amounts of water that can be repurposed for other uses.
“My goal with AMANZI is to expand our climate-smart offerings so that, at a future school, if we don’t have the rainwater harvesting potential that we do at our current school, we have more options to consider,” says Heemstra.
For South Africa, water is front and center in the conversations around climate change. But climate change affects different corners of the world in different ways, from extreme heat waves to widespread flooding to more frequent and severe wildfires.
These extreme events are defining features of our planet right now and, even as we work toward more effective climate solutions, it's important to consider how we change work and practices across sectors to bolster climate resilience. AMANZI’s approach provides an example of how we can address the consequences of climate change in more holistic, intersectional ways.
Heemstra’s experience and AMANZI’s work make it clear that it’s not possible to talk about education in South Africa without talking about water. And it’s not possible to talk about water, without considering the broader environmental context and ongoing climate change.
The future of water in South Africa is tenuous. Climate change is expected to not only exacerbate drying and increase water scarcity, but more intense periods of flooding may also occur. While important to address water resource management in the country in order to ensure stronger and more reliable systems moving forward, it’s also important to consider the opportunities and experiences water enables and work to protect those, as well. For Heemstra and AMANZI, this means working to ensure that education can persist in a world of shifting water resources.
While AMANZI works directly to address water scarcity in rural South African schools, it's about so much more than just water.
“We’re at an extraordinary inflection point in SA history. Now, becoming educated not only creates the opportunity for escaping poverty—which is very hard to do—but also creates the opportunity to have a positive impact and become a leader in the country,” explains Heemstra. “Without water, schools are forced to close so water becomes a fulcrum for education and opportunity.”
AMANZI is working to transition schools to systems that help save water, thus allowing these schools to persevere in the face of climate change. In doing so, the organization leverages climate smart solutions that have positive environmental and societal co-benefits in their implementation. This approach offers a broader lesson in the importance of holistic, interconnected approaches to resource management.
“I feel very strongly that it is important for us to really understand the interconnected nature of humanitarian work,” says Heemstra. “[This work] can’t be as effective if we are not really acknowledging how the environment is intertwined with things like global inequity and educational opportunity. I would encourage people to really start to think in that interdependent way because I think that’s the way we can actually have the greatest impact to make change.”
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