Water Woes

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African woman of U.N. Summit:  That talk is a waste of time

Sep. 5, 2002 2:16 AM ET


Associated Press Writer

SOWETO, South Africa (AP) _ In South Africa’s Mshenguville squatter camp, talk at a nearby World Summit about ending poverty is overshadowed by the daily struggles to survive.

Here, hope quickly yields to despair among the thousands who go hungry, trek to communal taps for water, dream of jobs.

In a wealthy Johannesburg neighborhood nearby, delegates at the U.N. development summit debated for 10 days over timetables for global social change. But in the end, the conference took few immediate steps to fight poverty beyond stressing the need to help the poor.

“The future is already beyond these children,” said Zwandinle Mdingi, 57, gesturing to a swarm of children, most in soiled or ragged clothes, as they played on a dirt patch where sewage from neighboring houses often runs.

“Now our hope is for their children. Maybe they will have things, like food and jobs. Every year we hear that we will get help. But look at us. That talk is a waste of time.”

At one end of the camp, a woman dropped an armload of trash onto heaps of garbage strewn across an open lot. On the other side of the sprawl of shanties and pit latrines, a fouled stream sends a stench into the air that is so strong it burns the eyes. Soon the rains will come, washing human waste through the camp. And then illness spreads. Parents say outbreaks of diarrhea and cholera are frequent.

The World Bank says such scenes are common around the world, underscoring the dire need to improve Third World economies to create better living conditions.

“Most people in developing countries live in extremely filthy situations,” said John Briscoe, senior World Bank adviser. “The resources required to clean up these places is immense. If your income doesn’t grow in your country, you’re not going to deal with that.”

U.N. officials say 1.2 billion people live on less than one dollar a day, with about half of the world’s population subsisting on less than two dollars a day.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the poverty rate is about 48 percent, unchanged over the last decade. But the actual number of people there mired in poverty climbed from 220 million in 1990 to 300 million in 1998, according to U.N. research

Many young people in the Soweto camp see only bleak days ahead.

“I used to have hope. I used to think I could work hard, study, get a job. But now I just think the situation will go from bad to worse,” said Thami Njoko, 24.

Like an estimated 33 percent of South Africa’s population, Njoko is unemployed. He said these conditions add to the country’s two most high-profile problems: the world’s highest HIV-infection rate and crime.

“People get hungry and then they get an uncontrollable anger,” he said. “They turn to crime. Or they get careless with their health.”

Fourteen-year-old Nokhuthula Ndlovu feels branded by poverty, torn by uncertainty.

“I think of myself as a poor child. My parents were poor children also. I don’t know if things can change,” she said.

For Anna Mbele, 43, each day is a dreary routine _ taking in laundry to earn money, fetching water and making balls of coal and mud to burn for heat and cooking.

Sometimes she scrambles to get food for the seven kids living with her. Along with her five children, she is raising two grandchildren, the children of her daughter who died recently after a long illness. At night, all eight of them cram into her hut, a space of about 40 square feet insulated by soft-drink posters scrounged from Soweto streets.

“I do the best I can,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t have food. But people help us if they can.”

The South African government says it is fighting to help the poor, but confronts a daunting challenge following decades of neglect under the former apartheid system.

Mdingi and many others like him battle despair. “Now we are free in South Africa, but with an empty stomach.”


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