How Healthy is our Water Supply?

By Glenn Ashton · 8 Apr 2009

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South Africa has one of the most progressive water regulatory regimes in the world, based upon the constitutional right of access to sufficient food and water for all. This right is being realised by the government policy of supplying free water of 6000 litres a month to all households in South Africa.

Taking this a step further, a court ruling against pre paid water meters by Judge Moroa Tsoka stated "Water is life, sanitation is dignity - this case is about the fundamental right to have access to sufficient water and the right to human dignity."

At the polarised World Water Forum in Istanbul in March this year, dominated by corporate interests that support the private control of water, South Africa was one of twenty signatories to a dissenting declaration recognising water as a human right. This was counterweighted by the USA and others who only recognised water as a human need, not a right.

Against these good intentions and general consensus around our right to water, we need to enquire if we are stewarding our water resources with sufficient diligence to ensure that our people are able to enjoy the right to safe and sufficient water and that our water sources remain in good ecological health.

The recent furore around the case of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's (CSIR) water scientist Dr Anthony Turton, who was prevented from making a keynote address on challenges facing national water management at a CSIR conference, highlighted this crisis. His presentation was forbidden as it apparently made unsubstantiated claims and contained disturbing, irrelevant images. But what was perhaps most notable was not the photographs of xenophobic violence that were cited as reason for the withdrawal of the paper, but what Turton actually said. Unfortunately his important contribution to the national debate was lost amongst the noise.

Turton warns that our entire water supply is effectively spoken for through supplying industry, municipalities and agriculture. Farming activities alone account for more than half of our entire water resources alone.

Excessive extraction of water from rivers and dams creates serious environmental stresses because insufficient flows are unable to dilute pollutants. This in turn leads to eutrophication (high nutrient levels, leading to algal blooms and deoxygenated water) of rivers and dams. South Africa has amongst the worst eutrophication problems in the world, which can often lead to the accumulation of toxic algae. This poison, microcystin, carries serious dangers to people and animals. Eutrophication places additional loads on water treatment plants making water purification more difficult and hence expensive.

Pollution from mines results in radioactive elements, chemical pollutants, heavy metal contaminants and acid build-up to the degree that the health of entire river systems has been endangered. For instance the Olifants River, which runs alongside some of the country's largest coalmines before entering the Kruger National Park, is implicated in extensive crocodile deaths. The director of the South African Water Research Commission's water-linked ecosystems unit, Steve Mitchell, said the Olifants is probably the most polluted river in the country, followed by the Vaal and uMngeni rivers.

The problem of over-abstraction from rivers and dams, coupled to pollution, has rendered largely academic the stipulation in our progressive National Water Act that an ecological reserve must remain in watercourses in order that rivers continue to be able to support their natural processes. Mitchell stated at a recent conference that the ecological reserve and consequently the health of our rivers have deteriorated since 1994.

Another major contributing cause to pollution of water is the poor maintenance of water treatment and sewage works. In many cases municipalities use water from the same sources to which treated sewage has been returned. This becomes a serious problem if either the sewage works or the drinking water treatment plants are not operating optimally. This has occurred in numerous small municipalities, rendering water unsafe to drink, threatening the health of communities.

Many smaller, isolated communities draw water directly from polluted rivers, usually with no subsequent treatment, with obvious risks. The recent cholera outbreaks are just one consequence.

Dr Turton identified three major drivers to the problems facing us that we must properly grasp if we are to sustainably manage our water resources. The first of these is the issue of dilution. If we remove too much water from rivers, this coupled to high evaporation rates and low annual rainfall, means that pollutants will not become sufficiently diluted. Therefore the ecological reserve - the amount of water to maintain the ecological health of the river - is insufficient.

Second is the matter of our spatial development patterns – how our country has developed. For instance the development of Johannesburg is most unfortunate from a water perspective as it lies upon a watershed and not in a river basin. Consequently there is insufficient water for its needs. Water therefore has to be brought in, usually from other river basins. The impacts are transferred to distant communities and ecosystems.

Thirdly, poor communities have historically been located in the most water-stressed and environmentally degraded areas. Soweto's location amongst mine detritus, leaching chemicals and radionucleotides has serious implications for its residents.

In order to solve these problems Turton poses three major strategic challenges. Firstly we must address the fundamental issue of ecological sustainability. We need to more accurately balance the ecological river reserve against social and economic needs so that the impacts of mine drainage, eutrophication and water pollution are diminished and managed. There is an intimate connection between the ecological health of a river and the social benefits it is capable of providing.

The next challenge is to deal with how water influences our national quest for human health, a critical issue in light of the scourge of HIV and AIDS. Clean, healthy water is vital to avoid opportunistic infections and even serious disease outbreaks such as cholera, as occurred this year. It is also essential for mothers who are using commercial infant formulae. The risks from radiation and heavy metals liberated by mining, past and present must be quantified and dealt with. Equally we need to deal with man-made chemicals, notably hormone disrupting chemicals and pharmaceutical products which are increasingly being concentrated in watercourses through the re-introduction of treated wastewater to rivers. This has serious implications for people and nature.

Finally, we must deal with the challenges raised by climate change, which are already affecting South Africa. Warmer climates and associated altered weather patterns threaten the health of rivers and people by - for example - increasing the potential of toxic algal blooms. A useful response to this would be to reactivate the moribund National Eutrophication Programme that collapsed around two decades ago, in order that research can be conducted to solve or ameliorate this threat.

Climate change also stands to further influence the dilution effect within watercourses, increasing pollutant concentrations, nutrients and the likelihood of accelerated eutrophication. This in turn threatens the ecological viability of our aquatic systems such as has already happened in Hartebeestpoort and Roodeplaat dams, where pollutant loads have resulted in hyper-eutrophication, known as hypertrophy.

South African water policy is progressive and well structured. By and large our major urban areas provide adequate quality water - for the time being. Yet the future appears bleak if we do not deal with these problems. Bryan Davies and Jenny Day's seminal book 'Vanishing Waters' outlines clearly how we are running out of capacity to supply water to our nation. We are already at the limit. Davies and Day are backed up by Turton, Mitchell and numerous other expert scientists, and more importantly by the reality of a rapidly deteriorating situation regarding the health and integrity of our water supply.

The first fifteen years of democracy concentrated on supplying water to the previously dispossessed majority, both for drinking and sanitation. However, we have failed to adequately address the challenges we face in maintaining our water infrastructure and in properly supporting important research organisations like the CSIR. The Water Research Commission has done great research work but more concrete action is urgently required.

It is crucial that the incoming government due to be elected this month focuses on the challenges related to the health of our national water systems. We have simply run out of time to act in these matters. If we fail to take a more holistic view of water management, all advances made to date are threatened. The work of the Department of Water Affairs must be prioritised. After all, water is life, not only for people but also for the entire network of ecosystems that enable us to survive, and hopefully prosper, in this arid and water-stressed land we call home.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Daniel Bailey
15 Apr

Water Conservation Workshops

Many communities do not realise that water resources are under pressure. Often taps are not closed properly, leaking pipes remain unfixed and people waste water ignorantly. Communities need to understand that water is finite and conservation is key to their childrens' futures. Local government should be pushing training sessions and workshops on water conservation as part of their service delivery mandate.

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