Prof. Kader Asmal. Photo: SIWI
Noted South African politician, lawyer and human rights activist, Prof. Kader Asmal, who served as the country’s first post-apartheid Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry from 1994-1999, passed away on 21 June 2011. Aged 76, he died of a heart attack at a private hospital in Cape Town.
President Nelson Mandela appointed Asmal to the “unlikely portfolio” of water affairs and forestry in his new South African government in 1994. According to his close friend Trevor Manuel:
he turned the formerly unremarkable water affairs ministry into the cabinet’s “sexiest portfolio”. He made it assume a leading transformation role by passing the National Water Act and stepping up water provision to poor communities. He introduced the innovative Working for Water project that created employment, saved water and served nature by training and paying people from local communities to eradicate exotic vegetation from rivers and catchment areas.
“Professor Asmal was the main political force behind South Africa’s post-apartheid water policy”, said Jon Lane, WSSCC Executive Director. South Africa’s National Water Act of 1998 was at the time described as the world’s most comprehensive and visionary piece of water legislation.
It incorporates a ‘water reserve’ concept that puts human needs and basic ecological functioning before commercial or industrial interests. The Act also includes water-use rights, an economic instrument which allows the poor pay what they can afford, while forcing water-intensive industry and agriculture to pay more. In addition, the legislation drafted by Kader Asmal state[d] that neighbouring countries are to have an equitable share of water from shared rivers.
Sandra Postel and Kader Asmal meet during a conference in Sydney, Australia, in 2010. Photo: Kelvin Montagu
Khader Asmal “was no greenie”, says Sandra Postel in her reflection on his water legacy
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.
Postel last spoke to Asmal in June 2010, at a water conference in Sydney, where 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.”
In Sydney, Asmal also reflected on his opposition to water privatisation 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.
Asmal gained international recognition for his work in the water sector when the World Bank appointed him to head the World Commission on Dams (WCD) in 1997 and when was awarded the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize in 2000.
In 1995 he became a patron of the Global Water Partnership (GWP). In 2003 he threatened to withdraw his patronage after the GWP published the Camdessus-led World’s Panel report on financing water infrastructure. Mr. Kasmal wrote an open letter to GWP chair, Dr. Margaret Catley-Carlson expressing his disappointment that the report ignored the framework of five core values and seven strategic priorities proposed by the World Commission on Dams (WCD), which he headed from 1997-2001.
Kader Asmal’s greatest accolade, says Manuel, came perhaps
from the UN Development Programme which chose in 2006 to launch its Human Development Report, that was themed on water, in South Africa because it was one of the very few countries that spent less on military budgets than on water and sanitation.
“Historians may come to record Kader Asmal as one of the most influential voices in the evolution of humanity’s relationship to water”, writes Postel.
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.