We ignore water at our peril

Article by: Sue Blaine
Source: Business Day Blogs

Here’s a suburban scene that makes my blood boil: someone using a garden hose to “sweep” a driveway. In fact, it’s not only in suburbia that you see this — I saw an employee of a top Rosebank hotel doing the same this morning.

We still use potable water to “sweep” driveways

Perhaps the reality is this: water is just not expensive enough in South Africa.

We have had endless government campaigns about saving electricity, but I have yet to see much, if anything, on saving water. We ignore water at our peril.

Poor-quality water “was of limited use and added to society’s economic burden through treatment costs and secondary impacts” on the economy, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research said in its a 2011 report on water in South Africa.

The country’s National Water Resource Strategy calls for “appropriate and timely corrective measures” to mitigate the effects of industrialisation and urbanisation on its water resources.

The CSIR report notes that in 2005, 95% of South Africa’s freshwater resources had already been allocated. The country’s average annual rainfall, at 450mm, is less than half the global average (850mm) and 10 of the water management areas in South Africa could not fulfil demand in 2000, according to the report.

South Africa is about to spent nearly R1bn fixing the Witwatersrand’s acid mine drainage problem, and there is the enormous additional problem of eutrophication — the addition of artificial or natural substances, such as nitrates and phosphates, to natural water through fertilisers or sewage. The most common symptom of eutrophication 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 in KwaZulu-Natal’s Shongweni Dam, according to the Department of Water Affairs.

To add insult to injury, tap water in South Africa could be undrinkable in future. Already, some of the country’s tap water contains poisons.

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 Edna Molewa promising a turnaround in the parlous state of wastewater treatment almost two years ago, it does not appear much has been done to rectify an ever-worsening problem. The Department of Water Affairs is enormously understaffed.

The 2010 Green Drop (wastewater quality) report showed that only 32, or 3%, of South Africa’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, ammonia and other nasties.

The national Green Drop Programme was launched in 2008 and was meant to cover all wastewater treatment works to ensure they did not harm the water bodies into which they discharged their products.

I could go on, but I think the point is made. We do not have a lot of water. We are using almost all the water we have. We are “killing” a fair bit of our water, and still we use potable water to “sweep” driveways.

That’s just stupid.

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