Sustainable water – not academic fantasy but achievable reality

Access to water as a basic human right and making this happen for millions of South Africans have been the twin goals of the work of Professor Kader Asmal, this year's recipient of the Stockholm Water Prize. Professor Asmal will receive his award from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at the 10th Stockholm Water Symposium.

A human rights scholar, barrister and activist, Professor Asmal is currently South Africa’s Minister of Education and has dedicated the award to the millions of South Africans lacking water and sanitation, and to neighbouring countries which he said deserve an equal share of water from common rivers.

The 1998 National Water Act he helped create has been described as the most ‘comprehensive and visionary’ in the world. Its maxim that there must be a water reserve at all times – that basic human and ecological needs have first call on available water resources – is one which is hard to ignore.

In exile for 30 years, Professor Asmal practised as a barrister in human rights law in Britain and Ireland before returning to South Africa when the ban on the African National Congress was lifted in 1990.

Appointed as Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry in 1994, he was a key figure in drawing up new legislation for a drastic overhaul of the country’s water management policies and practices. His unswerving belief that these should be anchored in social justice, human rights and environmental sustainability has won him praise for linking these issues to global water management.

At a time when more than 16M South Africans did not have reasonable access to safe drinking water and some 20M lacked safe sanitation, legislation introduced in Professors Asmal’s period of office provided access to water for some 4M people at home and for a further 3M at schools, clinics and workplaces.

Under his charge, the government’s supply-side approach to water management which focused almost exclusively on the needs of a white minority have been replaced by sustainable policies which reach all South Africans.

Other key achievements include better collaboration between the public and private sector but perhaps, more importantly, between the various states in southern Africa. Professor Asmal’s job-creation initiatives such as Working for Water programmes have inspired education and training in water management and conservation and created work for over 350,000 people, more than half of whom are women.

Professor Asmal is also Chair of the World Commission on Dams (WCD), an independent organisation developed by both supporters and opponents of large dam projects. In a sensitive debate where vested interests are high, Asmal is seen as a key figure who can offer legitimate insight into the equity, efficiency and the sustainability of water supply and use via these projects. The WCD’s work, to be reported later this year will have a far-reaching influence on the dams debate.

  • Deadline for nominations for the 2001 Stockholm Water Proze is September 30 this year. The $150,000 prize can go to an individual, organisation, institution or compnay for outstanding contributions in science, engineeringm technology, education or public policy which increase knowledge of water as a resource which should be protected for use by everyone. Details from SIWI or visit

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