Potable Water: A Pillar In The Right To Adequate Housing, Also Essential To Life

A classic Canadian rapid river edged by fir trees
Hwy 105 photo by Monik RT is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed
A glimpse of the English-Wabigoon River system in northern Ontario.

This is the final post in a series that looks at housing and homelessness in South Africa and Canada. It might be a source of inspiration/direction for housing efforts in either or both countries. Both countries have made formal commitments to achieve the right to adequate housing. Readers elsewhere who are calling for a right to adequate housing may also find these posts useful.

Cholera is nasty and deadly. Sewage treatment plants have been good at keeping it at bay. But those plants need to be maintained. They also need to be enlarged when communities get bigger. These are two key messages from a deadly Cholera outbreak in the city of Tshwane in South Africa. You can read more in this article by Anja du Plessis in The Conversation: Cholera in South Africa: a symptom of two decades of continued sewage pollution and neglect

Nor is Tshwane alone. People who live in and around Capetown, South Africa are also concerned about water and water quality. Residents started a project to monitor and report on water quality. In parts of the city where people get water from a communal tap, it’s really important to spread the word quickly if the water becomes unfit for drinking or cooking. You can read more here: Water Stories.

Water quality issues are very familiar to Indigenous people in Canada. One of the most infamous examples began in 1913, when a new pulp and paper plant began dumping chemical waste into the English-Wabigoon River system, poisoning fish as well as people who drank water downstream1.

Water quality issues are quite common on Indian Reserves in Canada. Some have longterm boiled water advisories, which means that an advisory about drinking water quality has been in place for more than 12 months. Some communities have had a longterm boiled water advisory for decades.

It seems that the federal government began a campaign to end the longterm boil water advisories seven years ago. The government has been reporting progress on its website. Since 2015, when the campaign began, 143 long term advisories have been lifted and 28 remain in effect2.

Status updates in the campaign to end long term boiled water advisories report progress as well as issues that are still to be resolved. For example, communities are using their repaired/new systems for a while to assure themselves that their monitoring and maintenance programs work. In some communities, bigger facilities are needed to supply a growing population and plans for expansion are being drawn up. These issues (monitoring, maintenance and expansion) are consistent with the experience du Plessis discussed in Tshwane, South Africa.

Continuing with water quality issues in Canada, getting water treatment plants up to snuff is a start, but what about upstream pollution from resource extraction activities, as was the case in the English-Wabigoon River system?

Resource extraction, including logging and mining, has been a central part of Canada’s economy. And similar to Water Stories in Capetown there are community campaigns to keep residents informed about water quality in Canada as well. Read about Keepers of the Water here.

Finally, what does water have to do with housing and homelessness? The UN Guidance on the right to adequate housing includes access to adequate services, including sanitation and washing facilities3. Both South Africa and Canada have legally embraced the right to adequate housing. There is a way to go before all residents in both countries have access to water.

Here are titles of the posts in this affordablehousingaction.org series, which are being published this week:


  1. For a detailed history, read more in the National Observer: How an Ontario paper mill poisoned nearby First Nations
  2. See this page for a current status report from the Government of Canada: Remaining long-term drinking water advisories
  3. The key aspects of adequate housing are listed starting on page 3 in the following document from the United Nations: The Right to Adequate Housing