Our water resources are under threat – not just from droughts and climate change but from waste too
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According to Rand Water, the quality of our freshwater is deteriorating because of pollution and the destruction of river catchments.
There is also a general lack of understanding that the waste we dispose of may end up in the water that we drink. Informal settlements along rivers are contributing to water pollution and we need to educate communities on the threat posed by pollution and waste to our water supply.
Drinking water comes from surface water (rainfall and run-off into dams or rivers) and groundwater (water collected underground). It is vital that we respect our essential water sources to ensure a secure, sufficient and sustainable supply of freshwater for all.
Much of the drinking water for Johannesburg and the surrounding region is sourced from the Vaal River and the Vaal Dam which lie 70km south of the city. About 19 million people depend on the Vaal River system for drinking water and commercial use.
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The South African Human Rights Commission stated earlier this year that it is polluted “beyond acceptable standards” and has set up an inquiry into the river system’s problems.
While the Vaal’s dire pollution problem has been caused by raw sewage flowing into it for many years, other rivers and water bodies around South Africa are under threat from different waste and pollutants.
Urbanisation, industry, agriculture and failing stormwater systems are impacting the quality of water in our rivers and dams. Increasing energy demands are causing air pollution which, in turn, pollutes our water sources, while plastic waste is also a major problem affecting our water supplies.
Plastic from discarded water bottles, polystyrene cups, grocery bags and synthetic clothing fibres can take hundreds of years to decompose. It breaks down into tiny pieces of plastic called microplastics, which have been found in streams, rivers, lakes and oceans around the world.
They often end up in the water we drink and the fish that we eat. Plastic microbeads are an ingredient in some kinds of toothpaste, facial cleansers and kitchen scrubs and they get into our wastewater.
To conserve scarce water resources, wastewater reuse is critical. While there are no technical barriers hindering the treatment of reused water up to drinking water standards, one of the challenges is the removal of poorly degradable contaminants and micropollutants. This requires more advanced wastewater treatment technologies that consume even higher levels of energy.
How can you help
There are things we can all do to help improve the quality, and therefore increase the quantity, of water available to South Africans. We can play a role in reducing pollution in rivers and dams by taking these simple steps to preserve our precious water sources.
• Stop buying products sold in plastic. Rather opt for products with biodegradable packaging.
• Do not buy toiletries and cleaning products that contain plastic microbeads.
• Recycle. Do not throw away plastics and other waste and packaging that can be recycled.
• Do not use pesticides and poisons.
• Use fabric shopping bags, not plastic bags.
• Reject polystyrene packaging. Rather use your own coffee cup when buying your morning brew.
• Do not litter
• Reduce your energy consumption.
• Do not pollute rivers with liquid or solid waste.
• Make your voice heard by petitioning the government and business to prioritise our water quality and security.
• Speak out against organisations that are polluting our water systems.