While the South African Water Act recognizes water as a human right this does not necessarily mean water is governed and appreciated as it should be. In a country that uses 93% of its available water supply, South Africans need to be made aware of the difficulties that face our most precious resource. With National Water Week coming up next week and with the United Nations in town for World Water Day, thought we'd highlight some of the water issues facing South Africa:
Acid mine drainage
Drinking water quality management
Invasive alien plants
Acid mine drainage (AMD)
Dr Anthony Turton has described this AMD problem as "South Africa’s own Chernobyl" due to its potential to cause a huge amount of harm (including spreading radioactivity). Although the government was warned of the dangers of AMD in the early 2000’s and there was evidence of AMD surfacing in 2002 already, it is only now that the relevant authorities are recognising this as an urgent problem. AMD not only threatens to destroy ecosystems and corrode buildings, it is also poisoning our scarce drinking water with radioactivity, heavy metals and lethal chemicals! The AMD problem arose as a result of abandoned Johannesburg mines: water was once pumped out of the mines to enable gold mining and when there was no gold left the pumping stopped. This allowed the water in the rocks to flood the old abandoned mines which lead to a complex chemical reaction inevitably producing a “red iron like sludge” that we know as AMD.
Acid Mine Drainage in Johannesburg
There are over 8000 abandoned old mines in Joburg and the portion of profit that should have been used to rehabilitate the mines and prevent this problem has gone into the pockets of shareholders instead. Under South African law the polluter is supposed to pay for the problem and with DRD, Rand Uranium, and Mintails as the last mines in the Western basin you would think they would be noble enough to own up to the responsibility but no one is willing to take the blame. Click here to see the transcript of a Carte Blanche documentary for more details about AMD.
Industries need to be held accountable for their water usage as stated under the "user pays" principle in our Water Act. Any company polluting water should also be heavily fined for doing so and forced to take measures to fix the problems they have caused but alas... this is not the case! Trade unions such as The Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa), the second-largest union group in South Africa, have been putting pressure on the government to do something about the country’s dirty water. There have been numerous accounts and footage in the news displaying proof of the failure of sewage systems and industrial effluent polluting our rivers, dams and streams but local authorities no longer have knowledgeable people with expertise to maintain a healthy state of water in many parts of South Africa.
water pollution in Durban
A Fedusa report from last year showed that 90 dams across the country hold polluted water and the World Health Organisation calculated that about 3.4 million Africans died every year from drinking unsafe water or because of poor sanitation. To read more about water pollution in South Africa click here
Drinking water quality management
The South African Department of Water & Environmental Affairs (DWEA) launched the Blue Drop Certification system a few years ago - a campaign that encourages local municipalities to improve their water quality management while empowering consumers with the right information about what is coming out of their taps.
The 2009 Blue Drop report found problems with:
- Process controlling (insufficient skilled process controllers and vacant posts)
- Monitoring (inconsistent & insufficient monitoring)
- Data quality (laboratories under scrutiny and municipalities not properly informed on the quality of service performed at commercial laboratories)
- Preparedness (Water Services Institutions not sufficiently prepared for adverse incidences)
- Funding (Drinking Water Quality Management is underfunded)
Following an assessment period conducted between March 2008 and January 2009, Gauteng province came out tops with the vast majority of citizens served from Blue Drop certified water supply systems. KZN came second, but there were concerns regarding the quality of drinking water in rural areas in that province where communities are at risk to waterborne diseases like diarrhea and cholera. The Western Cape came third overall.
In the 2010 Blue Drop assessment the Western Cape ranked highest with a 92.45% score, whilst the Northern Cape ranked lowest at 46.87%. Gauteng ranked second, Eastern Cape third and KZN fourth. The top municipality ranked was Joburg (98.4%) followed by Cape Town (98.2%).
Only 38 Municipalities (out of 162) made the Blue Drop certification (excellent quality) whilst 45% of muncipalities need attention or need urgent attention. Nine municipalities did not bother to respond to requests to be assessed.
View the rest of the latest (2010) Blue Drop Report here
Acid rain in South Africa is caused by the release of the gases SO2 (sulphur dioxide) and NOX (nitrous oxides). The main sources of SO2 in South Africa are coal-fired power stations and metal working industries while the main sources of NOX emissions are vehicles and fuel combustion. Sulphur dioxide reacts with water vapour and sunlight to form sulphuric acid. Likewise NOX form nitric acid in the air. These reactions takes hours, or even days, during which polluted air may move hundreds of kilometres. Thus acid rain can fall far from the source of pollution. Acid rain acidifies soil and water which leads to deformed and infertile crops as well as the death of aquatic life. Not only does this mess with the natural ecosystems but it adds to the existing issue of food scarcity in South Africa. The Olifants River in Mpumalanga is collapsing, specifically because of acidification, and numerous maize crop resources have been polluted already. It is estimated that the region produces nearly two million tons of sulphuric acid and one million tons of nitric acid pollution annually.
Read more about SA's serious Acid Rain problem here
Invasive alien plants
What do White oleander, Water lettuce and Jacaranda trees have in common? They’re illegal weeds that are draining South Africa of its valuable water! Although the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act passed in 2001 declares 198 invasive alien plant species as illegal weeds there are over 348 invader plants in South Africa. The problem with these invader plants is that they are ecologically damaging: they have already taken over 10% of the country and use 7% of the lands water. What’s worse is many of these alien invaders are toxic to man and animals. Under the current legislation, landowners are responsible for the removal and control of these plants on their properties so it is worth checking this list to see if you have some unwanted visitors in your garden that need to be taken care of!
South Africa has developed one of the largest planted forests in the world. In the film “Pulping the Future”(2009) produced by GeaSphere the question, how much water does timber production use in South Africa? While it is difficult to give an exact answer to this question GeaSphere justified their estimation as follows: South Africa has 1.5 million hectares of managed plantations and each hectare has at least 1000 trees. Using the conservative estimate that each tree uses at least 25 litres per day (equivalent to the South African free basic water allowance) this gives us the answer (1.5 million ha x 1000 trees x 25 litres/day) that timber plantations use 37.5 billion litres of water per day. This was compared with a South African population of 50 million people getting a free basic water allocation of 25 litres per person per day, which amounts to 1.25 billion litres per day. GeaSphere's conclusion was that timber plantations use 30 times more water each day than the entire population's free basic water allocation. To read more on this topic visit www.geasphere.co.za
As if water scarcity issues aren't enough South Africa has been pressurized by World Trade Organization negotiations to open their water market to foreign corporations since 1999. As a result companies like Suez of France, through its subsidiary Water and Sanitation Services South Africa (WSSA), and SembCorp of Singapore, through its subsidiary Silulumanzi, are international firms with water contracts in South Africa.
Basic service access has become more expensive due to outsourcing water management and the poorer households in South Africa have suffered. In 2001 alone approximately 500 000 people were cut off from household water for non-payment.
Whilst we are currently faced with the above issues, there are also the longer term impacts of climate change on our water situation to consider!
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced a 214 page technical report on Climate Change and Water in 2008. Projected changes relating to water include: precipitation and water vapour, snow and land ice, sea level, evapostranspiration, soil moisture, runoff and river discharge.
Freshwater systems will be impacted mainly by increasing variability in rainfall, as well as rising sea levels. Groundwater and surface water (e.g. in rivers and dams) will decrease, and increased evaporation from the ground will leave the soils more salty, thereby limiting plant growth. By mid-century, 50-100 million people in southern Africa may experience water shortages. Sea-level rise will cause increasing salinisation of groundwater and estuaries, leaving less freshwater for humans, for agriculture and for ecosystems.
There will also be more intense floods. Although these will to some extent relieve the water shortages, the floods will be damaging to infrastructure (e.g. bridges) and result in more water-borne disease. Moreover, diseases will spread more easily as water temperatures increase in response to global warming.
Water is the key to life
At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (2002), Former president Nelson Mandela said, "among the many things that I learnt as president was the centrality of water in the social, political and economic affairs of the country, the continent and the world."
With so many issues facing our scarce water supply, it is time that we recognize water as our most precious resource as soon as possible. Follow this link to see what you can do to conserve water today! www.urbansprout.co.za