Water disaster ‘could have been avoided’
Johannesburg - The reality of the water crisis in the country hit home on Tuesday, with some Joburg schools sending their pupils back home and some parts of Gauteng running dry.
Numerous southern and south-western suburbs had no water on Tuesday, leading to residents believing that water rationing had started.
The Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality issued a red alert on residents, warning them to use water sparingly as many suburbs in and around Germiston experienced water shortages.
It warned that levels in the reservoirs supplying certain areas were at a critical level which could lead to low water pressure.
“If the situation in all of the areas above deteriorates further, the EMM will implement water shedding measures and shut off supply from 10am-3pm,” the municipality warned on Tuesday.
In KwaZulu-Natal large parts of the North Coast and Zululand are under severe water restrictions, with many residents relying on supply from water tankers, while parts of the Ugu District Municipality on the South Coast are being serviced with salty water, as the main reservoir has run dry and a key river has been flooded with seawater.
As authorities grapple with the problem, it emerged on Tuesday that a lack of strategic planning, the loss of skills to transformation, poorly-functioning waste-water treatment plants which are spewing some four billion litres of untreated or partially-treated sewage into rivers every day, have contributed to the looming water disaster.
And this disaster is one that that could easily have been avoided, according to water expert Dr Anthony Turton, in an analysis published this week in @Liberty - the policy bulletin of the Institute of Race Relations.
In a damning article, Turton said South Africa’s water shortage is not simply the result of the current drought.
“The water shortage is also an induced one. It stems from a lack of strategic planning, a loss of skills to transformation and the fact that poorly functioning wastewater treatment plants are spewing close on four billion litres of untreated or partially-treated sewage into the country’s dams and rivers every day,” he said.
These sewage spills are the most serious of the many problems in the water sector.
“Just as a small volume of oil destroys the quality of a large volume of water, so a small source of persistent sewage has essentially the same effect.”
Sewage discharges are also driving the eutrophication of most major dams. Eutrophic water is characterised by the presence of high levels of nutrients, which, in turn promote, the growth of cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae.
One very common species of cyanobacteria produces a potent toxin known as microcystin. This is chemically similar to cobra venom. It is also carcinogenic (cancer-producing) and damages the liver and central nervous system.
“The microcystin levels found in a number of major dams - including the Hartbeespoort, Hazelmere, Midmar and Vaal dams - are amongst the highest ever measured in the world. Microcystin toxin levels become a concern in developed countries at far below the levels commonly found in South Africa. Moreover, nothing is being done here to remove the toxin,” said Turton.
There are only two known technologies capable of neutralising microcystin, and neither is in mainstream use in any of the country’s bulk potable water treatment plants.
“Worse still, no one knows whether these technologies can, in fact, neutralise microcystin at the concentrations found in South Africa. In this regard, we are truly flying blind.”
Instead of dealing with these difficult issues, the Government is under-reporting the extent of eutrophication. Official reports suggest that only percent of the national water resource is at risk, but a recent study by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has found that at least two-thirds of South Africa’s largest dams are already eutrophic, he said.
The more eutrophication proceeds, the more the 38 billion cubic metres of water in our dams are likely to become unusable.
“This looming disaster could have been avoided if a rigid concept of transformation had not been allowed to trump the imperative to safeguard public health,” says Turton.
On Tuesday, two schools in the south of Joburg sent pupils home because the institutions had no water. However, Joburg Water managing director Lungelo Dlamini said City Power had experienced a two-hour power outage, so Eikenhof power station was not able to pump water. This, he said, left many suburbs without water, among them Lenasia, Brixton, Crowns Gardens, Robertsham, Ridgeway, Little Falls and Radiokop.
On Monday, Joburg Water said Rand Water had notified them of a further deterioration in the bulk supply system, recommending a high level of restrictions.
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