It’s here: The water crisis we’ve warned about for many years


It’s here: The water crisis we’ve warned about for many years

In 2014, the government acted like a pilot who switches off the radar because the information it reveals is uncomfortable. That did nothing to change reality, says ANTHONY TURTON.


THIS week, our national water and sewage crisis really began to bite. A media storm has erupted over the cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal and at least 23 families are grieving for their dead relatives.

It is important that we start this story by remembering the dead because they were breadwinners in families, all doing their best to survive the tribulations of our times.

They died unnecessarily, the victims of the slow-onset disaster I spoke about in 2008 at a conference called Science Real and Relevant.

At that conference, reference was made to three water quality challenges that we in the dwindling aquatic sciences community were all too aware of but unable to speak about.

We noted trends that datasets were showing us, and we felt a growing sense of alarm about the consequences of the trajectories on our graphs.

We noted that systems were failing rapidly, with much of the hard infrastructure in the water sector approaching the end of its useful design life.

We noted with alarm the loss of skills, as purging took its toll on our science, engineering and technology core. 

We noted the loss of dilution capacity in all our rivers after the first National Water Resource Strategy, mandated by the National Water Act, indicated that as far back as 2002 we had allocated 98% of all the water in our rivers and dams.

We noted the plumes of uranium moving into the headwaters of the Vaal and Crocodile rivers, tributaries of the Orange and Limpopo respectively, driven by uncontrolled decant of acid mine water as the gold mining industry started to collapse.

From these sets of data, a simple conclusion was drawn: South Africa was heading for a slow-onset disaster unless we could convince our political leadership to do things differently.

Here are some facts that contextualise the cholera crisis.

Fact 1:  The South African economy ran out of water in 2002 when the National Water Resource Strategy revealed that we had already allocated 98% of all the water we have legally available in terms of the National Water Act. This means we cannot convince investors to have confidence in our future. We face an investment drought as a direct result of this startling but irrefutable fact.

Fact 2: We produce more than 5-billion litres of sewage daily, all of which is discharged into our rivers and dams and only about 10% of which is treated to a standard that makes it safe for direct human contact.

Fact 3: The Green Drop and Blue Drop reporting system was suspended in 2014 by Nomvula Mokonyane, then minister of water and sanitation, when data showed trends of failure at sewage treatment works. This is like a pilot in a commercial airliner switching off the radar screen because the information on is becoming uncomfortable for the poorly trained but rapidly promoted cockpit crew. This is the undeniable genesis of the deaths we are seeing today.

Fact 4: The combination of facts 1 and 2 means our tsunami of sewage can no longer be diluted in our rivers. In fact, more than 60% of all our large dams are now eutrophic, with highly enriched water breeding toxic cyanobacteria, all thriving in warming water and the growing flow of nutrients from sewage. Having lost their dilution capacity, our rivers have been turned into hazardous sewers breeding harmful pathogens, including the flesh-eating bacteria that cost the journalist and historian RW Johnson his leg. This means cholera is only one of the risks we face from raw sewage in our rivers. For example, hepatitis A is a waterborne pathogen directly related to sewage-contaminated rivers, but it is reported separately so the penny has yet to drop.

Fact 5: The current minister of water and sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, reinstated the Green Drop and Blue Drop reporting system, and it shows that more than 90% of wastewater treatment works are dysfunctional. Mchunu is a brave man and I want to publicly support him as he tries to rebuild the trust that was destroyed by a previous minister.

Mchunu is a brave man in so doing, and I want to publicly support him as he tries to rebuild the trust that was destroyed by a previous minister.

So, this is where we are today. People are dying as a direct consequence of decisions made by a former minister, who clearly failed in her custodial role. She must ultimately be held to account for her dereliction of duty and blatant betrayal of public trust.

Just this week, a spokesperson for the Presidency noted that his office was unable to intervene in the cholera crisis because the cooperative governance clause in our constitution prevents one sphere of government from intervening in the activities of another.

We must challenge this constitutional weakness and seek clarification from the appropriate court. How can a constitutional clause be so irrational as to prevent one part of government from intervening in another to avert a catastrophe? How many more lives must be lost to the absurdity of legal protection for those in power, while their activities are clearly not in the best interests of society as a whole? Surely, a constitutional democracy is about empowering citizens by protecting them against the consequences of failed service delivery.  

From the depths of despair in the families of those whose lives have been lost to an entirely preventable illness, let us find the strength to rally as one and shout, “enough is enough”. Our constitution grants all citizens the right to a better life in an environment that is safe from harm.

Let us restore that dream by demanding that our sewage flows be brought under control. Surely this is the basis of modern civilisation, irrespective of political persuasion or ideological preference.

♦ VWB ♦

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