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South Africa’s looming water disaster

2014-11-03 09:12

Cape Town – Gauteng’s water was recently switched off because it was “so close to the edge” – and that’s just the beginning. The rest of the country is running on empty unless government spends 100 times more to secure our water supply.

In more than half of the country, South Africans are using more water than what’s available. We are already using 98% of our available water supply, and 40% of our waste water treatment is in a “critical state”.

A staggering 37% of our clean, drinkable water is being lost through inefficient ways of using water such as leaking pipes, dripping taps – and that is what’s being reported, the figure could be much higher.

A recent government report, seen exclusively by News24, has found that a whopping R293bn needs to be spent over the next five years, otherwise we face a looming water crisis. This is 100 times more than the R2.9bn the department is expected to spend this year on water infrastructure management, Treasury estimates show.

These worrying findings in the department of water and sanitation (DWS) report emerged just weeks after Water Minister Nomvula Mokonyane denied there was a crisis in the sector, blaming severe water shortages across Gauteng on a “technical glitch” and the theft of electricity cables.

But experts have told News24 that the rest of the country is also already “at tipping point”.

The DWS report confirmed that demand for water has already overtaken supply in 60% of South Africa’s water management systems.

It also revealed that pollution and water borne diseases are key risks to our water supplies, after finding that almost 40% of South Africa’s waste water treatment is in a “critical state”.

Running on empty

Though South Africa is a semi-arid country, the problem isn’t that we don’t have enough water in our rivers and dams.

Marius Claassen, aquatic ecologist and head of water resources research at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), says: “Even if we have a drought, in the short term it is not an issue.”

The issue, he says, is with our “old and unreliable infrastructure”.

We are already using 98% of our available water supplies – and we are not using them efficiently.

This was highlighted in the DWS’s annual report last year, when then-water minister Edna Molewa said she was concerned that an astounding 37% of our clean, drinkable water is being lost through leaking pipes, dripping taps and other inefficient ways of using water.

That’s a best case scenario, according to Claassen. “The 37% is just the ones that report it – at worst we are losing 50-60%,” he warns.

“There’s the next 10 year’s water supply – an extra third that we could be using,” points out Christine Colvin, hydrogeologist and senior manager of the Freshwater Programme at the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature South Africa.

Squeezing water out of a stone

Experts agree that to secure our supplies we need to use what we have more efficiently.

Says Colvin: “We engineered our way out of a water shortage over the last 200 years – we had to build massive infrastructure – uphill, into our dry interior and to the mines. But now…we have to work with nature, rather than against it, to get to our resources”.

With 8% of our land producing 50% of our water, South Africa must look intelligently and strategically at the problem, she says.

The government has been working on reallocating our water – 98% of which, as mentioned earlier, is already being used and therefore already allocated to specific sectors.

But Dr Anthony Turton, water expert and professor at the University of the Free State’s Centre for Environmental Management, doesn’t expect movement any time soon.

“They’ve been working on reallocating for 20 years – there is no mechanism in place.”

Claassen agrees that the department is “sitting with a real problem”. He says the government must reassess allocation – starting with agriculture, which uses 62% of our water supplies.

Though the agriculture sector is the biggest consumer of water, it generates just 5% of South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP), Turton points out.

What a waste

Crumbling infrastructure, poor efficiency and chronic wastage aren’t the only things putting a squeeze on our water supply.

The European Union noted last year that pollution was so widespread that it made it “difficult to estimate the magnitude of the problem”.

It found that South Africa generates such large amounts of harmful waste, that it is “more in line with that for developed countries”. Yet we have a “very limited” ability to deal with it.

The EU report revealed that only 5% of hazardous waste is dumped at the correct waste disposal sites.
The scarcity of our water is threatened by not disposing of hazardous or industrial waste properly, and is further impacted by the domestic waste produced by rapid urbanisation, it warned.

Around half of South Africa’s urban population now lives in informal settlements, according to a World Bank report published in August.

With “a very low level or absent” waste management system in these areas, it is not just these communities who are threatened by water borne diseases, but the surrounding local population too, the EU report cautioned.

A Blue Drop in the ocean

Indeed, complaints over the cleanliness of our water in the run-up to the 2011 local government elections prompted the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to launch an investigation of municipalities nationwide.

The SAHRC found that nationally, South Africa seems to “indicate progress”, but the regional story was quite different.

It found that 23 municipalities (9% of the total) were in a crisis state, with “acute risk of disease outbreak”. A further 38% were at high risk, with the “potential to deteriorate into a state of crisis”.

The government does have a benchmark for international standards – the Blue Drop Certification, which is supposed to monitor the quality of our water.

But of the 931 water systems within South Africa’s 153 municipalities audited in 2012, only 98 were given Blue Drop approval.

While some don’t make the grade, many simply don’t even bother to report to the government.

Rough treatment

According to the DWS’s latest public overview on the state of our water, a survey conducted in January 2010 showed that 60% of the country’s water service authorities don’t have the right licences or permits for their treatment works.

Of those that do, almost a third admitted that they do not monitor the quality of their treated water on a monthly basis. What’s more, one in five revealed that they do not use a laboratory for quality analysis – indicating that sample collection and analysis is not done at all.

Meanwhile, the SAHRC report found that many municipalities testified to a government commission that water treatment plants were collapsing “due to the heavy loads of treatment required”.

The report quoted the Ministerial Sanitation Task Team (MSTT), which found that there is no dedicated budget for sanitation at a municipal level.

“As a result, municipalities do not prioritise sanitation”, the SAHRC reported. “Often, when a budget is allocated to water and sanitation, the entire budget is spent on water and none on sanitation”.

The water schemes are however under huge financial pressure, as revealed by the report from the DWS’s planning group.

The report shows that 273 water schemes – or 30% – have budgets in deficit and are therefore short of money.

The group warned that a further 15% of the country’s water schemes are expected to fall into deficit over the next five years.

Hard rock and heavy metal

For Claassen, the overriding issue on a national level is not the quantity of water, but the quality: “Most definitely from a quality perspective it isn’t getting better – due to more and more failures from waste management services and threats from AMD (acid mine drainage), among other things.”

AMD occurs when rock chemistry generates sulphuric acid in gold and coal mines. Colvin says it can turn neutral water, at a pH level of 7, down very quickly to a pH2 or a 3 – “enough to take your nail varnish off”.

Dr Jo Burgess, research manager for mine water treatment at the Water Research Commission (WRC), advises that at low pH water may taste sour, while high pH water tastes bitter or soapy.

Flowing through rocks and rivers, the acidity in the AMD-affected water dissolves a whole sweep of metals which would normally stay in the soil and on the rocks.

Copper, arsenic, aluminium and other hard metals can be dissolved as easily as table salt in a glass of water.

A sick society

According to Colvin, AMD carries a whole batch of health risks – from diarrhoea to neurotoxicological effects – including poor brain function, loss of memory, and the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

One report on AMD in Gauteng’s mines, by Adler and Rascher in 2007, has been widely cited for claiming that long-term exposure to AMD could cause “increased rates of cancer, decreased cognitive function and [the] appearance of skin lesions”.

Claassen agrees there are definitely contaminants in AMD that might contribute to cancer, but he cautions that there are “so many different causes of cancer” that it is extremely hard to prove.

Plus, the majority of those likely to be affected are the poor mining communities where, as Colvin points out, the people are “on the front line of everything” – poverty, HIV, food shortages, poor housing and general low life expectancy.

“In America, the Erin Brockovich chromian cancer case stood out very clearly, because the people were otherwise well nourished and so on”, she says, referring to the famous example of the small town legal clerk who took on a gas and electricity juggernaut over contaminated water – and won.

Your problem and mine

AMD first hit the headlines in 2002, when flooding in the West Rand Basin released 20 million litres of polluted water into the surrounding areas.

Yet it is estimated that 90% of AMD comes from abandoned mines that were operating more than a century ago – leaving today’s taxpayer to foot the bill.

There are some 6 000 abandoned mines that could be suffering from AMD – though that number is a “moving target”, DWS spokesperson Sputnik Ratau says.

The SAHRC argues that the government only began to take it seriously a decade later, “once AMD started to threaten the interests of relatively empowered, politically influential and wealthy populations in and around Johannesburg”.

Certainly, it is not a problem that affects the whole country – although it has been reported in a number of areas, including the Witwatersrand Gold Fields, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal Coal Fields, and the Okiep Copper District.

Turton says the problem is often “blown out of proportion” – as the chances of drinking untreated, AMD water for long periods of time is “extremely unlikely”.

However, he points out that the government’s solution has so far been to dilute and neutralise the AMD with clean water. With supplies running low, he asks: “Where will we get the water to dilute it?”

For every litre of AMD water, five to seven litres of good quality water is needed to make it usable, according to Marius Keet, acting chief director for the DWS Gauteng region.

But it’s not that simple. You can never be sure that it will be 100% clean. As Claassen says: “Even conventional water treatments wouldn’t get rid of it. The impact will still be there”.

At the coal face

For Claassen, it is not just the legacy of the old mines but the “explosion of new, smaller mines” that is a problem.

Indeed, the WWF has witnessed a “massive proliferation” of coal prospecting licences in Mpumalanga alone.

Colvin said: “More than half of Mpumalanga has been given prospecting licences (which if approved will progress to mining licences).”

According to the Water Resources Institute (WRI), Mpumalanga supplies freshwater to the Olifants River catchment, which is already impacted by AMD.

Andrew Maddocks, head of the WRI’s Water Program, says there is a continuous development of coal in the upper Vaal River catchment and a string of applications for new mining permits.

“Should these mines go ahead, the quality of water in the Vaal River will suffer from AMD pollution,” he says.

Meanwhile, Colvin warned that Gauteng is going to lose a significant proportion of its water.

“Look at how quickly the recent problem led to the water being cut off for weeks by Rand Water. It was because they were so close to the edge, the supply was just about meeting demand.

“We are going to push ourselves to tipping point where we will be switching taps off.”

Running out of wiggle room

If a mine is active, it is the owner’s responsibility to clean up any AMD. Many companies are making efforts to comply – for example with Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Gold Fields developing strategies to mitigate future risks.

But it is taxpayers’ money that has been used in the past to clean up abandoned mines.

AMD straddles the mining, power and water sectors, calling on different government departments for solutions. It has fallen to the DWS however, to take the lead on AMD – on top of its duty to address water shortage issues – just as it feels the impact of understaffing. The DWS’s annual report shows that 10% of their positions are vacant due to difficulties attracting the right talent.

Facing an exorbitant bill, the department is now asking mining groups and other stakeholders for investment.

Keet said his department alone needs to find R10bn to dilute water in the Vaal over the next three to four years. This money is not included in the budget that the government has given the DWS for waste water management.

“Even if we manage to deal with the legacy,” says Claassen, “we almost have a growing problem rather than a shrinking problem (because of the new mines)”.

The threat of a growing AMD problem, combined with the slew of issues faced by our creaking water system has left us no room to manoeuvre. Or as Turton puts it: “We are running out of wriggle room.”

The EU report is more damning. Claiming that the status quo is unsustainable, it warns: “If social and economic issues are addressed separately from environmental issues, ecological and social collapse is certain.”

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