By Glenn Ashton · 21 Mar 2011
It is appropriate that Cape Town has been selected as the designated global focal point for this year's UN sponsored World Water Day on the 22nd of March.
South Africa faces serious threats from its increasingly scarce water supplies. We are one of the world's most water-stressed nations and have much in common with many other regions and nations around the world such as Australia, the south-west of the USA and north-west China.
South Africa provides the ideal context for this year's World Water Day event, "Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge." Regions like Gauteng face imminent water crises. Other urban areas like Cape Town and Port Elizabeth face similar threats in the near future. The past year has seen several of our urban areas resort to emergency plans to maintain public water supplies.
More than half of the world's estimated seven billion people are now urbanised. The challenge to provide clean drinking water and adequate sanitation to the inhabitants of the cities of the world is a significant one.
The UN agency responsible for organising the event in Cape Town, UN Habitat, is mandated to pursue the goal of environmentally and socially sustainable towns and cities. But in an interconnected world decisions taken to benefit towns and cities have inevitable consequences on rural areas.
Cities like Johannesburg, with no local water sources, have abstracted water from ever more remote locations as they have grown. First it was the Vaal Barrage, then the Vaal and Hartebeestpoort Dams; today Johannesburg and the industrial heartland of Gauteng abstract water from distant dams in Lesotho and rivers in KwaZulu Natal. These patterns are repeated in cities around the country and the world.
South Africa recognised the right to clean and safe water and sanitation as a basic human right 12 years before the United Nations made a binding resolution to do so in 2010. While South Africa has made great strides to supply water to the majority of its people since 1994, with around 88% now having access to water, more than 40% of South Africans do not have access to formal sanitation.
This failure to simultaneously deliver clean water and adequate sanitation lies at the crux of the problem facing any developing nation attempting to fulfil the binding UN declaration on the right to clean water and sanitation.
Delivering clean water is less costly than dealing with wastewater, especially that generated by concentrated populations in urban areas. For instance, while 88% may have access to water, recent studies show that only 55% of that water is considered of suitable quality for human consumption.
While delivering water to such a large proportion of our people is a notable achievement, the quality and management of our existing sanitation facilities has declined over the past few decades, to the extent where only 3% of our water treatment works now meet acceptable standards. There is a direct linkage between this failure and the quality of available water. This is the gap in the water regime that renders our present situation unsustainable -- it is the unmentionable elephant in the room.
Most of our approximately 1600 water treatment works service urban areas and towns. The pollution caused by poorly managed works affects all communities but particularly small towns and rural water supplies.
The hard reality is that urban areas receive clean water from far afield, then pollute it and unthinkingly flush it down the drain. Urban dwellers simply do not realise how precarious their water supply really is.
Urban water use is presently an open loop system, in contrast to closed loop, natural systems. Water is collected in dams, distributed, polluted, treated and disposed, either to the sea or back to rivers. No municipalities presently purify wastewater for re-use by people, except in emergencies when the energy intensive and expensive process of reverse osmosis - also used to desalinate seawater – has been used on treated sewage water.
If we are to sustainably manage our wastewater we must purify it to vastly improved standards removing all nutrients and pollutants in order to render the water biologically neutral.
To do this we must improve wastewater treatment processes. The present practice of polluting perfectly clean drinking water with human waste products and soaps, then partially treating it before releasing it into the environment is outdated. The nutrients are wasted, either through being dumped in landfills, pumped into the sea, or in the case of defective water treatment works, returned to our water sources with often catastrophic consequences on human and environmental health.
Most of the nutrient in human waste is derived from either fossil fuel sources (chemical fertilisers converted to food, which we convert to waste) or from industrial products such as soaps. All water scarce nations should urgently legislate to forbid the use of high phosphorous soaps, which are radical pollutants. This has already been enforced in many developed nations.
Historically, the rich nutrient component in human waste was a valuable commodity. This 'night soil' fertilised fields to replenish the nutrients absorbed by growing crops. Only by returning to such a closed loop system can we halt our squandering of these twin resources of nutrient and water.
The increasing scarcity and expense of fossil fuels that industrial agriculture depends upon for fertilisers and production, examined against the waste of nutrients produced by humans, clearly represents another open loop system that must be closed.
Instead of simultaneously polluting watercourses and oceans by wasting these precious nutrients, we need to use systems that recapture them so that they can again fertilise our food, directly or indirectly. This is the only logical and practical way to close this loop and to begin to shift towards a concerted and truly sustainable water and sanitation management system. The most efficient systems separate nutrients and purify the water through using the lowest possible energy systems.
One way to achieve this on the micro-scale is through the use of composting toilets. These have been condemned as being culturally insensitive or degrading by some local communities, while others have embraced them as contributing tangible benefits to community health and wealth. This compost, commonly termed 'humanure' is safe to use as a balanced and efficient plant nutrient.
So, if we wish to achieve sustainable cities from a hydrological perspective, we need to re-examine not only our abstraction of water from distant sources but more importantly, its treatment once we have polluted the originally pristine product.
Industries also pollute vast amounts of water as part of the manufacturing process. Our huge mining industry has created major point sources of pollution through acid mine drainage, which then is returned to rivers and streams, usually without adequate treatment, spreading the impact.
For a start, mining and industrial effluent must be separated from the general wastewater process. Each large industry and mining company must be obliged to return water to the environment only when it has been purified. By doing so the true ecological and economic cost of water can be calculated and included in the industrial process.
Industrial pollution is presently subsidised by both the public and the state. If products cannot be economically produced by using full cost accounting, then the market will be forced to innovate and create new methods of production.
Most water in South Africa is used by agriculture. This is often wastefully used and polluted. Poorly designed irrigation systems can lose half their water through evaporation and other inefficiencies. Fossil fuel based chemical fertilisers seriously pollute water sources through run-off into rivers and groundwater. It is therefore essential to shift to efficient agricultural systems.
Urban storm water is also a major source of pollutants that must be properly dealt with. One way to do this is to temporarily store this water; direct it through natural or constructed wetlands to polish it and then either return it to watercourses or inject it into the subterranean aquifers for later abstraction, as is successfully done in Australia and elsewhere. It has been found that the most efficient way to clean water is through using natural systems like wetlands, which can also be constructed.
In truth, hosting World Water Day is a symbolic recognition and response to South Africa's water crisis. Yet this road show can assist in focusing the perceptions of not only our leadership, but also of the broader population.
However the real problem with these huge international shindigs is that apart from the extensive talk shops and networking, there is little real practical movement towards implementing the real and needed changes that South Africa – and the many other water scarce nations around the world – really need. We certainly need less talk and more action.
It is also of profound concern that the option of public private partnerships has been accepted under UN auspices and is now being promoted by as a solution to sustainable water use. This is both illogical and runs counter to the public good. It undermines the very concept of water being a human right.
Corporate entities are notoriously uninterested in human rights and are instead focused on profit, yet are quite happy to green-wash their motives. Water, as a major component of the global commons, cannot be permitted to be managed by corporate, profit driven interests but should rather be managed by the state directly, or through local authorities, on behalf of its citizens and residents.
What the world really needs is not a World Water Day, or week or month, but a constant focus on the precarious state of our national – and international - water supplies and sanitation practices. Only a consistent, long-term approach to this challenge will enable us to provide sustainable water supplies to the inhabitants of both urban and rural areas.