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Grahamstown water debate continues

Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 10 March 2010

The Makana municipality may have given Grahamstown’s tap water a clean bill of health, but experts are divided over whether it is, in fact, safe to drink.

Although a panel of Rhodes University professors and a packed gallery containing some equally learned experts did not see eye to eye on claims that the water was tainted by heavy metal toxins, they all agreed more tests needed to be done.

The meeting was chaired by Rhodes Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Dr Saleem Badat, but trying to get conclusive answers at Monday night’s Public Forum on Water Issues proved murkier than the often dirty looking water in the student town.

The decision to debate the quality of the town’s water comes hot on the heels of a Dispatch report last week on allegedly dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals coming from a tap at a local ostrich export abattoir.

Unacceptable levels of aluminium, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and coliforms were allegedly detected regularly in the water by a South African Bureau of Standards accredited laboratory conducting tests for the Integrated Meat Processors of the Eastern Cape (Impec) Abattoir.

And while the academic panel pulled their punches over the Impec findings, some of the crowd did not – especially when the man in charge of Makana water, Dabula Njilo, arrived 45 minutes late. Njilo’s claims that he was convinced one-off Amatola Water Board tests, done after the Dispatch exposé, conclusively proved the water was safe for human consumption did not go down well.

Disagreeing, local community businessman and academic Dr Garth Cambray said an offer by local water experts a few years ago to give free advice on water issues to the municipality had been turned down in favour of “paid officials who could not give advice half as good as the experts”. “I request that our officials drink two litres of tap water a day to see what happens… the town is meant to be a place where leaders learn, instead of getting Alzheimers.”

Earlier, emeritus professor and local DA chief whip Michael Whisson accused the local authority of being “reckless and negligent” in conducting water tests. He said after nine years on council he had not seen any municipal chemical test results on the water.

Although he arrived after Whisson had spoken, Njilo inadvertently disputed the claims when he said “periodic” tests showed there were no problems with the water over the past two years. “The water is safe to drink,” he said, admitting that the aluminium sulphate levels were above the legal limit. Njilo also claimed ageing infrastructure was a major concern and that R90 million was needed to properly fix it.

Rhodes University ichthyologist Martin Davies accused the local authority and his employers of hiding years of water data he had compiled and given them in 2006. He said the data consistently showed high levels of aluminium and arsenic – which was worrying considering they had an accumulative effect on the body.

– David MacGregor
Daily Dispatch Online

Related article: Alarming level of toxic metals in water

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