Reflections on South Africa’s former Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, who died on June 22 at the age of 76.
The small sitting room in the Cape Town hotel was so thick with smoke I could barely breathe, but the chance to talk with Kader Asmal, the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry in the new post-apartheid government of Nelson Mandela, was well worth a little constriction of the throat.
Indeed the conversation proved breathtaking, as did most discussions with the affable, eloquent, outspoken, witty, chain-smoking lawyer who would soon revolutionize water rights in South Africa and raise the water bar for the rest of the world.
It was September 1997, just three years after Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa. In one of Mandela’s many strokes of genius, he appointed as his water minister not a civil engineer or a hydrologist, but a human rights lawyer who knew little about the science of water but a great deal about water’s role in creating an equitable and humane society. At that time, 16 million South Africans –nearly all black and poor – lacked access to a safe supply of drinking water. To Asmal and the team he assembled, water could be a means to redress the injustices of apartheid.
A year later, in 1998, South Africa gave birth to a landmark water law. Grounded in the ethical precept of the “public trust,” the law did many things, but the most game-changing was the establishment of the “Reserve.” The Reserve called for meeting the basic water needs of all people and of the ecosystems “on which humans depend” before granting water entitlements to industry, irrigation and other economic uses. The Reserve turned water allocation on its head and grounded it in principles of equity and ecological health.
Asmal was no greenie. In fact, he bemoaned what he called “return-ticket environmentalists” from the rich countries. But he saw that the marginalized of South Africa needed not only access to drinking water but to the fish and floodplain resources that healthy rivers provide.
On that September 1997 trip, I got a glimpse of another innovation of Asmal’s team. Out in the watershed of the Western Cape, I came across groups of women whacking away at eucalyptus, pine, black wattle and other invasive trees. Guy Preston, one of Asmal’s top water advisors, explained that these thirsty trees were not only sucking streams dry they were displacing the native biodiversity of the fynbos (shrubland), one of the richest areas of endemic plant diversity on the planet.
The brilliance of Asmal and Preston, though, was to use this calamity as an opportunity to create jobs for poor women. Within a decade after its launch in 1995, the Working for Water Programme had trained and employed more than 20,000 people in the removal of alien plants from more than 1 million hectares (2.47 million acres) of the South African landscape. Jobs created, streams revitalized, native plants saved—a win-win-win.
I last saw Kader Asmal a year ago, in June 2010, at a water conference in Sydney, Australia. By then, he had won the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize, chaired the high-profile World Commission on Dams, and moved on from the water ministry to the education ministry. Kader left government in 2004 and resigned from parliament in 2008.
In Sydney last year, he talked of successes and lessons learned from the South African experience. When I became minister, he said, “16 million had no access to water. Women were beasts of burden, carrying 50 liters of water on their backs.” Today, Asmal said, the number of South Africans lacking access to water has dropped to 1.5 million. “The most important right is the right to dignity.”
One afternoon, Kader and I were treated by our Australian hosts to a helicopter tour of the Sydney water catchment and the eucalyptus-blanketed Blue Mountains. Over the din of the chopper, he reflected on his opposition to water privatization in South Africa and the scourge of corruption.
“I’m probably the only retired politician who’s not rich,” he said with an impish smile.
Historians may come to record Kader Asmal as one of the most influential voices in the evolution of humanity’s relationship to water. While that voice is now silent, Kader’s words, ideas and actions will ripple through the world of water for a long time to come.
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative. She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”