Our Water Crisis: Seizing Opportunity From Danger

By Glenn Ashton · 2 Nov 2010

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Picture: KonradC
Picture: KonradC

Water management in South Africa is in serious crisis. Consumers were recently told to wash their fruit and vegetables as they could be infected by disease causing E. coli  microbes because the crops were irrigated with water contaminated by sewage. 

Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) is killing not just crocodiles but entire riverine eco-systems. Our dams, rivers and streams are becoming ever more stressed due to the low flows of water that remain in them because of illegal over-abstraction for irrigation and contamination by poorly maintained sewage works.

South Africa is amongst the most water stressed nations on earth. Johannesburg is one of the world’s largest cities with no natural water supply in close proximity. Our dams presently capture nearly 80% of available water to supply our people and industries. This is the highest proportion of water capture of any nation. Simply put, there is no more water to capture. To think we can rescue ourselves by desalinating sea water or pumping ancient aquifers is foolishness.

Our water is unsustainably managed from both ecological and water security perspectives. Gauteng is predicted to become water stressed by 2011. The rest of the country is not far behind. While load shedding may work for electricity, cutting water supply is a different matter.

In 1994 water management - never the most alluring of government portfolios - was handed to Kader Asmal. This energetic man transformed the Department of Water and Forestry (DWAF) into a veritable rockstar of government departments. Asmal's holistic perspective culminated in our National Water Act, a revolutionary document. 

Asmal successfully employed not only his own prodigious talents but also those of experienced officials throughout DWAF. Unfortunately, since Asmal’s departure in 1999 to drink from the poisoned chalice that is the Department of Education, DWAF has lost much of its capacity and the department has deteriorated to the extent that it is now one of the most dysfunctional in government.

While DWAF, which has now morphed into the Department of Water and Environment (DWAE), is perceived as a politically junior department, it can never be regarded as unimportant. Without healthy water life on earth withers and dies.

Our evaporation rate is more than double our average rainfall. This supposes that water security should be treated far more seriously. In July of this year the United Nations general assembly passed a resolution deemed as revolutionary, that recognised water and sanitation as fundamental human rights. Our Water Act did this in 1998.

While we endorsed the UN resolution (the US, Canada, UK and 38 other states did not) the stark reality is that the manner in which we are treating our water will render any such intention moot.

The Water Act went further than establishing water as a human right. It set out that after a free basic allocation, users shall pay for water use and abuse, thus eliminating pollution and wastage. It stipulated that rivers must maintain a stipulated “ecological reserve” - the amount of water required to function as a healthy ecological entity.

The National Water Act created a framework on which to hang regulations and guidelines in order to manifest its intentions. While some aspects of the Act have been properly implemented, others are sorely lacking, undermining its intent and leading to negative environmental and social consequences.

This legislation initially caused alarm amongst farmers and other heavy users of water about the user pays principle. The often illegal abstraction of water from rivers and groundwater was threatened and the very concept of paying for borehole water was foreign. The fact remains that all water is a collective resource.

Yet a decade later illegal abstraction remains such a major issue in some areas that it has become impossible to accurately calculate river flows, let alone to try to establish or fix the ecological reserves of rivers. The problem is not just the implementation of the Water Act but how we practically manage our water.

We have insufficiently robust management systems and inadequately capacitated management. Outsourcing consultants can never replace using well trained departmental insiders. Robust leadership has been lacking but we must hope that the new minister, Edna Molewa prioritises rectifying the many departmental ills.

Water delivery is in such a chaotic state that the bulk water supply unit, the Water Trading Entity (WTE) runs at a massive loss, despite increased rates for water. Parliament recently heard how bulk water disbursements are listed as sales, even when money has not changed hands. The system is broken.

This lost clean water is then all too often returned to stressed water treatment works that have not been upgraded to cope with the increased demand from broadened access to water borne sewage. We should very closely question the notion of using perfectly clean water to transport sewage in a water stressed country. While meeting one Millennium Development Goal we simultaneously compromise another more important one – the right to clean water.

Consequently, poorly treated or even untreated sewage enters the same rivers and dams from which downstream water users draw their water in turn, making it more expensive to treat to acceptable standards. Only 3% of our sewage plants operate to a suitable standard; about 55% of drinking water is of adequate quality. We have failed to even institute standards or systems to manage reservoir and dam water quality under the National Aquatic Ecosystem Health Monitoring Programme.

A major reason that defective water treatment plants are not dealt with properly is because it is government policy to avoid interdepartmental legal action whenever possible. While co-operative governance may be theoretically praiseworthy the practical result is dysfunction, underlined by the 97% of waste water treatment plants that do not meet acceptable standards, degrading our rivers and dams. 

So while we theoretically recognise water as a human right, we are not practically managing the resource adequately to ensure its sustainability. UN resolutions and national legislation notwithstanding, we are frittering away water resources that belong to future generations. Maintaining water quality may be expensive but the remediation of destroyed eco-systems is far more so.

Acid mine drainage (AMD) is a problem of massive proportions which has only recently registered on the relevant authorities’ radars after they were threatened by class action lawsuits. Plans are still being made to deal with this problem which threatens to not only destroy ecosystems but to poison our water with radioactivity, heavy metals and lethal chemicals.

Waterborne diseases are the worlds leading killer, causing the death of at least 4000 children per day. DWAF’s business intelligence unit (in a 13 page 2005 study which took nine months to complete) concluded we have insufficient data to estimate the impacts of waterborne diseases in South Africa! The study concluded that things seem to be deteriorating, presumably at great cost.

Villagers in Bushbuckridge already swarm water tankers, unsure of when the next water supplies may arrive. We are threatened by the South African version of Delhi belly because of sewage contaminated vegetables. Those afflicted by immuno-suppressive diseases like HIV and AIDS are especially at risk.

The denialism displayed by ex-ministers and officials is especially unhelpful. The problem can only be managed by recognising and admitting the scale of the problem and incoming Minister Molewa certainly has her work cut out for her. AMD, diseased dams and rivers impacted by the uncontrolled sale of high phosphate soaps and fertiliser runoff, causing overloaded and rotten rivers, are each problems that cannot be denied but which can be solved.

So what are the solutions to this gloomy situation? Fortunately there are many. One would be to ban the sale of high phosphate soaps as has been done in many areas of the USA and Australia. It is iniquitous that we still allow clothes washing in otherwise pristine rivers using phosphate laden detergents.

Chile may also hold some lessons for us. Its northern reaches are exceptionally dry and a system of water auditing has been implemented so that all users, industries, mines and agricultural users alike, account fully for their use and then pay accordingly. Copying this model would align us with our Water Act.

The timber plantation industry must pay its fair share for its massive absorption of water resources. It uses around 30 times more than our basic water allocation for our entire population while paying a miniscule proportion of the true cost of this water.

Industry must clean up the water it uses under the “user pays” principle. Any industry polluting water must be heavily penalised. We must develop efficient ways to clean polluted water. We can establish cutting edge solutions as Professor Eugene Cloete and his colleagues at the University of Stellenbosch have done with their teabag size filters capable of purifying heavily contaminated water at a very low cost. This alone could save the lives of millions of children.

We certainly cannot continue to allow our water to be governed by an inefficient five year political cycle. We would be far more responsible to instead embrace the 7th generation principle, where resources are cared for to ensure sustainability for 7 generations hence. Even by properly implementing the Water Act which stipulates water as common property, we can regain ownership from  dysfunctional government departments.

In the 1960s there were rivers in the USA that were so polluted that they caught fire. Careful administrative action turned this all around in spectacular fashion. We need to inspire water engineers and remediators and train men and women so they are attracted to this sector. We need to stop our wasteful use of water for agricultural irrigation and irrigate intelligently, using underground drip irrigation, not sprinklers that lose most water to evaporation and encourage soil salinity.

Neither can we abuse nature by continuing to flush vast amounts of perfectly good water down the drain. Even the seas surrounding coastal cities are being poisoned by untreated sewage, treating our ocean as a toilet.

There are many examples of solutions in action. In Salisbury, South Australia, the stormwater rainfall runoff is captured, purified through constructed wetlands and then returned to the underground aquifer so it can be withdrawn as and when required. There are dozens of such examples around the world. The water treatment plant in Whangarei, New Zealand runs its water through constructed wetlands before it is discharged to the river. We could start by constructing wetlands alongside every municipal water treatment works so we can polish our water before it is returned to nature.

We cannot afford not to follow this path. We can create green jobs by building artificial wetlands, by viewing sewage as an energy source, not as a pollutant. While Windhoek has been drinking purified wastewater for half a century, water treatment technology has advanced in leaps and bounds since.

By taking collective responsibility for our water we can simultaneously nurture our biodiversity while improving the availability and health of our water. The Chinese symbol for crisis is composed of two characters - one can represent danger, the other can represent opportunity, or a crucial point. In order to overcome this crisis we must seize crucial opportunities in the face of this particular danger.

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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Judith Taylor
5 Nov

Water Crisis

Thank goodness for a sensible article pointing out the flaws in water management! I with many other water activists have been talking to DWAE for years in order to obtain a sense of urgency without success. Perhaps this will assist. Could I have a pdf version to take to the water quality risk management task team?

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