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SA tap water could be undrinkable in 19 years

Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 09 March 2011

Tap water in SA could be undrinkable in the next 19 years if the country does not change the way it uses water, or how it treats used water, scientists say.

Already, some of the tap water in SA contains poisons.

Blue-green algae produce toxins that rob water bodies of oxygen.

Poor quality water will negatively affect the economy, curbing the manufacturing sector directly and indirectly, says limnologist Bill Harding. Limnology is the study of freshwater bodies.

Despite Water Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica promising a turnaround in the parlous state of wastewater treatment almost a year ago, there has been no visible action taken to curb the risk from semi-treated water discharged into SA’s rivers and reservoirs, the scientists say.

Last year’s Green Drop (wastewater quality) report showed that only 32, or 3%, of SA’s estimated 850 wastewater treatment works complied with requirements for safe discharge. The report noted that only 449 of the works had been assessed, with the rest either ignoring, or being unable to comply with, the call to submit to scrutiny.

Only 32 (7%) complied with the Green Drop criteria after being measured for E. coli bacteria, nitrates, phosphates and ammonia and other nasties.

The national Green Drop Programme was launched in 2008 and was meant to cover all wastewater treatment works so as not to harm the water bodies into which they discharge their product.

However, the Department of Water Affairs says it has established an emergency response facility for the worst cases identified in the report. Also, various steps were taken to ensure improvements in the Green Drop performance for the next reporting cycle. The 2011 report would be released later this year, said spokeswoman Linda Page.

Mbangiseni Nepfumbada, acting deputy director-general, says while SA’s water and water treatment challenges are real, scaremongering is not helpful.

“Our biggest problem is the cost of cleaning the water, but … SA is known as a country where you are able to drink water from the tap, unlike in some developed countries. We clean our drinking water to SANS 241 (South African National Standards level 241 for drinking water, meaning the water does not pose significant risk to health over a lifetime of consumption, including during infancy and other vulnerable periods) so that we can safely drink our water. We tell people not to drink from streams.”

SA’s “rigorous” wastewater treatment plant standards are not the problem, says Democratic Alliance water affairs and environment spokesman Gareth Morgan. “The problem is that a huge amount of treatment plants take in more effluent than they were designed for. Our bulk water infrastructure has not kept up with new infrastructure developments.”

Water experts point to the deterioration of municipal -level capacity, especially infrastructure and skills, to ensure water quality, as evidenced by the low participation in the Green Drop reporting process.

SA has an annual water infrastructure maintenance spending backlog of R2,66bn, says business analyst Richard Holden, a member of the South African Association of Water Utilities.

Dr Harding says treatment works should be upgraded in Gauteng first because it has the widest eutrophication problem. Eutrophication is the addition of artificial or natural substances, such as nitrates and phosphates, through fertilisers or sewage.

Eutrophication’s most common symptom is an increase in microcystis, blue-green algae producing toxins that rob water bodies of oxygen, making water sterile. Since 2005 it has caused toxic cyanobacterial “blooms” every year in Gauteng’s Hartbeespoort, Roodeplaat, Klipvoor and Rietvlei dams and KwaZulu- Natal’s Shongweni Dam, says the Department of Water Affairs.

Mr Nepfumbada says the department is reviewing the national water resource strategy, due to be published for public comment towards the end of the year. It also has a Water for Growth and Development Strategy, planning 30 years ahead.

“We can’t develop (our water infrastructure) as we have done in the past …We need to conserve water and manage demand, so our policy is crafted to address the very things these people are asking questions about.”

A big step in the right direction is to promulgate legislation banning phosphorus from fertilisers, laundry detergents and personal hygiene products, says Dr Harding.

This is something the department is “very seriously” considering, says Mr Nepfumbada.

By: Sue Blaine
Source: Business Day

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