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Water crisis could cripple economic growth

Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 23 May 2010

South Africa faces a water crisis that could cripple economic growth and cause a plague of health problems – but critics say the government has yet to act with urgency.

Toxic algae bloom

The most immediate concern is the acid mine drainage (AMD) polluting a vast swathe from the Witwaters-rand to Mpumalanga. Other threats include pesticide run-off, broken infrastructure and failed sewage plants.

As the population grows and economic recovery puts more pressure on limited inland water resources, experts predict a shift of industrial activity to coastal areas where desalination plants will have to meet a growing share of demand.

Environmentalists warn that if the government and industry fail to act, within two years mine water as corrosive as battery acid will gush from Johannesburg’s Wemmer Pan and seep into the city’s streets and gardens.

“It is acutely toxic,” said Mariette Liefferink, who leads a group of non-governmental organisations lobbying for action. “It affects the soil and neural development of the foetus, which leads to mental retardation; it will cause cancer, cognitive problems, skin lesions,” she said. “These are all the foreseeable risks if we do not manage our AMD.”

Acid mine drainage, which occurs when mines close and stop pumping water out of shafts, has contaminated streams and dams on the West and East Rand that feed into the Limpopo and Vaal rivers. Treatment by utilities such as Rand Water renders the water safe, but those who drink straight from rivers are at risk.

Liefferink accused the government of dragging its feet. “Unfortunately they’re taking a very short-term, Band-Aid approach. Radical measures should be taken.”

Mine water can be made safe to drink by reverse osmosis, as an Anglo American coal mine is doing in Witbank, but this is expensive.

Jo Burgess, a research manager at the Water Research Commission, said government departments were taking steps to deal with this “very serious problem”.

“Whether the steps are sufficient or not we will only know as time passes, because it takes years, if not decades, for the impacts of acid drainage and the efforts to mitigate it to become noticeable.”

A Department of Water Affairs spokesman, Linda Page, said the department was formulating a strategy. With the National Nuclear Regulator it was investigating the clean-up of sediment in the Wonderfonteinspruit on the West Rand, heavily contaminated with uranium.

“Our planning within the department for the country’s future water needs is strong,” Page said. “However, SA will have to adjust more and more to the fact that our fresh water resources are limited and we have to use our water more efficiently.”

A Centre for Development and Enterprise report says water-supply problems could rival the electricity shortage as a hurdle to development.

Many aspects of the looming crisis were a result of “over-ambitious” plans in the immediate post-apartheid period to provide running water to impoverished rural areas. “They remain laudable in principle, but the harsh truth is that they have proved impossible to implement effectively.”

Bill Harding, an expert on dam ecology, said one of the biggest threats to water supplies was sewage flowing into dams, bringing nutrients that spur the growth of toxic algae.

Other harmful substances, such as disease-causing bacteria and hormones that can disrupt development of sexual organs in foetuses, were probably also present.

“We’ve been warning about reservoir management since the mid-’80s,” Harding said.

“All the dams in Gauteng are in a critical condition. We’re getting rapidly to the point where we’re going to have a massive crisis. There’ll be water coming through your tap, but you won’t be able to drink it.”

According to figures cited by the SA Institute of Civil Engineering, SA will need R500-billion over the next 10 years to fix water infrastructure and install fresh capacity.

Jabu Maphalala, spokesman for the Chamber of Mines, said the industry agreed in 1994 to put aside funds for rehabilitation.

“However, mining has taken place for over 100 years, and left undesirable legacies, some of which emanate from abandoned, ownerless as well as derelict mines,” he said.

“Legislation now stresses the ‘polluter pays’ principle, but it is not easy to apply in dealing with this legacy because the original operators have long disappeared and the commodities produced have been consumed.”

– Anton Ferreira

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