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SA’s water: A looming apocalypse?

Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 07 May 2010

South Africa faces a far more disruptive threat than Eskom power failures, one that is potentially calamitous and may even be seen by religiously-minded citizens as the coming of the biblically predicted apocalypse.

It will be characterised by the failure of wastewater purification systems, the pollution of rivers and dams and even the poisoning of waters in reservoirs or dams serving as reservoirs if the purification process is inadequate at that level.

The first signs of the disaster are already visible in remote rural areas where the municipalities – which are responsible for wastewater purification – are too poor to attract appropriately qualified personnel to operate purification systems and ensure that they are properly maintained.

Though water and environment affairs minister Buyelwa Sonjica denies that there is a water crisis at present, she implicitly admits that one is inevitable unless strenuous action is taken to prevent it when she warns that South Africa will have to spend R23-billion to prevent the collapse of the wastewater treatment system.

An excellent synopsis of the main dimensions of the impending crisis if appropriate and urgent measures are not taken is contained in a publication by the Centre for Development and Enterprise and Business Leadership SA.

The publication summarised the contents of a round table discussion by representatives of government, business and academia on the genesis of the problem and the threatened crisis.

The scene-setting introduction makes two broad points:

Firstly, South Africa is an extremely dry country and its main industrial centres are far from the chief sources of water. The problem was initially successfully countered by high competency in the storage and transfer of water.

Secondly, the incoming ANC government after the watershed election in 1994 started well by extending modern sanitation to historically disadvantaged black people. In recent years, however, problems have developed, including deterioration in the infrastructure related to the storage and purification of wastewater.

“We are facing increases in well known water pollutants as wells as some new ones, both of which have major consequences for human health,” Jenny Day, director of the fresh water unit at the University of Cape Town, notes in her contribution to the round table discussion.

“More than 90 % of municipalities are unable to meet the water quality standard for discharges from their waste water plants, causing pollution hot spots and wide spread health risks.”

Day identifies the “ultimate reason” as the erosion of water quality management, though there are contributing causes, including an over-concentration on increasing the water supply at the expense of the maintenance needs waste water treatment plants, as well as, of course, the severe shortage of skill labour.

It might be noted in the context of Day’s reference to mew or emerging pollutants of which one is mineral acid, the drainage of which into rivers and dams she rates as the “biggest water quality issue in South Africa.”

Cognisance should be taken too, of an investigation by the department of water affairs in response to concern by the Federation for a Sustainable Environment about the leakage of acid contaminated water from disused mines into Johannesburg’s water supplies.

It warns that as the acid pollutant contains metal it is a potential threat to the health of Johannesburg residents.

According to The Times, Mariette Lieffierink the chief executive of the federation, warns that prolonged drinking of acid and metal contaminated water leads to “increased rates of cancer, decreased brain function and skin lesions.”

The “Green Drop” report of sewage treatment in South Africa – which was released to the late last month – more than four months after it was presented to the minister of water affairs – might be described as a tale of neglect or the sounding of alarm bells.

Of the 852 waste water plants across the length and breadth of South Africa, nearly half have been judged to be too dysfunctional to merit proper assessed, the equivalent – to put it differently – of a government department whose records are too inadequate to be audited by members of the auditor-general’s office.

As the Mail & Guardian notes, of the remaining nearly 450 waste water plants hardly more than 200 have been  judged to scored more than 50 %, while a mere 32 (or less than 4 %) have been reported to have merited green drop status (or to have met the international standards of waste water plants.

Sonjica, however, refused to concede that South Africa faces a crisis because of the growing problem of faecal pollution of its waterways, compounded, of course, by the new and old pollutants referred by Day in her contribution to the round table discussion quoted earlier.

“I would rather say we have reason to be concerned,” Sonjica states. “I would only think (that there is a crisis) if we faced an outbreak of many water-borne diseases,” she adds before concluding: “We and we are not there.”

Her comments are reminiscent of those of former president Thabo Mbeki, who refused to concede that the level of crime in South Africa constituted crisis proportions, preferring, instead, to label it a “manageable problem.”

They are reminiscent, too, of Alec Erwin, who while serving in Mbeki’s cabinet described the power outages as a sign of the government’s success to extending electricity to millions of black citizens rather than a failure to plan ahead.

In fairness to Sonjica it should be noted that she has only been the minister of water affairs and the environment for a year.

In conclusion it is appropriate to recall the words of Anthony Turton, a former senior member of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, who was suspended for talking to the media about a discussion paper he had prepared for presentation to his colleagues but which was withdrawn from the agenda by the council’s management.

Presented for discussion at the end of 2008, the paper dealt with the approaching water crisis.

After his suspension from the council, Turton prophesised that problem of power outages would be miniscule compared with the pending crisis of water shortages and intensifying pollution of the rivers and dams.

Reading the Green Drop Report in the context of Turton’s paper – which was available on the internet at the end of 2008 – is to experience a sense of déjà vu.

Patrick Laurence
Source: Politicsweb
Related article: Water: A Looming Crisis

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