Leaving SA high and dry?

Posted by Richard

Leaving SA high and dry?
Article By: Lindiwe Mlandu
Mon, 04 May 2009 17:12

Water is life — so what happens if we run out of it? When it comes to water, South Africa has a big problem; some have even compared it to the power crisis, except that this one is being kept under wraps.
By 2013 Gauteng may not have enough water to meet the demands of its citizens and according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Western Cape could run out of fresh water by 2015.
Last year, researcher Anthony Turton from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was suspended for his damning report on the quality of our drinking water. He was prevented from presenting a paper in which he concludes that "we are heading for a significant crisis in the water sector".
On his website,Turton says that the water scarcity is a fundamental developmental constraint not only to South Africa, but to the entire Sadc region.
South Africa has run out of surplus water, with 98 percent of it already allocated and because most rivers and dams are highly polluted, they've lost the ability to dilute effluents.
According to Turton, given our high HIV/Aids rate South Africa has a growing antiretroviral (ARV) load, which passes, like any other medication, through the body in partly metabolised forms. This means we will start seeing higher levels of ARV in our rivers, which by implication means that these complex chemical compounds will eventually enter the human population over time, either through drinking water or via produce that has been irrigated with contaminated water.
A part of SA's legacy
Turton makes it clear that the problem started before the birth of our democracy. When the current government took over they inherited a robust infrastructure, but a declining level of technical ingenuity. "It is not their fault. This is part of their legacy, but it is they who have to deal with it now."
He is not the only one to warn against a possible water crisis. Chris Herald and Mike Muller, water resource management experts raised similar concerns but the minister of Water Affairs and Forestry Lindiwe Hendricks denied this.
While only 54 percent of dams comply with modern safety standards, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry insists that South Africa's drinking water has been rated among the best in the world.
No water crisis
Linda Page a spokesperson for the Department of Water Affairs said, "There is no water crisis at the moment. South Africans should not be alarmed. The department's planning is strong. On the availability of water, there is sufficient water in our rivers, dams and our underground water to provide for socio-economic growth and developments. There are programmes in place to ensure the timely development of infrastructure to ensure future water supply to the growing economy."
Her department acknowledges that the water might, at times, not meet the required technical standards. Still, this does not mean the water in the country is not safe for human consumption. Drinking water quality management is the responsibility of municipalities and the Department of Water Affairs has an oversight and regulatory role on the quality of the tap water.
Poor management of informal settlements — with inadequate sewage systems and little provision for the removal of waste has led to large quantities of waste being washed into rivers, from where it travels to overburdened water purification plants.
As the quality of water from our water sources deteriorates, it becomes more complex and expensive to purify the water to make it safe for drinking. The City of Cape Town spends R400 000 a month more than it should on treating water from the Voelvlei dam alone because of high levels of pollutants in the water.
Pollution in the Vaal River
Elsewhere, pollution in the Vaal River is a result of sewage spills that have been ongoing for over a decade. Residents have tried to bring this to the attention of the government but their attempts have failed.
"As far as the Vaal is concerned, action has been taken by the department against the municipalities that pollute the Vaal River, municipalities are however not the only polluters in the Vaal River, communities that live along the river bank and the farming community are responsible for the pollution," said Page.
The department has issued directives to the Mfuleni Municipality, forcing it to rectify problems with its waste water treatment works which is causing pollution of the Vaal River.
"In Gauteng waste water facilities which were posing the highest risk on resources were identified through this process and regulatory intervention commenced with the objection of ensuring that local government mobilise resources for the sustainable turn around of the situation," said Page.
One of the challenges facing South African water is poor maintenance. The water treatment plants and the pipes that deliver clean water to our cities and towns are old and dilapidated. Most municipal sewage systems in South Africa are 30 to 50 years old.
Another challenge is that councils have been pressured to expand water and sewage infrastructure to service previously under-serviced areas. This has burdened the existing infrastructure.
The water department lacks skilled workers. Experienced workers have retired and the department has been left with unfilled posts. South Africa is failing to produce enough engineers to fill the skills gap. According to Turton, many white males between the ages of 35 and 49 with these particular skill sets have been affected by affirmative action and have opted to leave the country.
According to Page, her department's implementation of the "River Health Programme" is one of the ways in which they are dealing with polluters and remediation in specific dams (already undertaken in Hartesbeespoort Dam). More resources are, however, also being put into the launch of the 'Green Drop' certificate to recognise cities and towns that comply with the required standards on the discharge of waste water.
Turton believes that the government needs to accept that the developmental targets of the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative (Asgisa) are simply unattainable or radically rethink how to mobilise the country's science, engineering and technological capacity.
Page claims that work has already begun on water resources infrastructure and by 2012, major water resources infrastructure projects to the value of R10.1-billion would have been completed, including new dams.
Unfortunately, for the uninformed public, only time will tell how real the threats outlined by Dr Anthony Turton are. In the meantime, it probably wouldn't hurt to implement water-saving strategies in your home and set up some sort of secondary purification system for your drinking water. Or, you could just put your trust in the Department of Water Affiars.
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