Informal settlement residents in the Vaal area find it difficult to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak as they do not have regular access to clean water nor soap. Nokuthula Mbatha African News Agency( ANA)
Informal settlement residents in the Vaal area find it difficult to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak as they do not have regular access to clean water nor soap. Nokuthula Mbatha African News Agency( ANA)

Coronavirus: ‘Sewage could swell virus risk’

By Sheree Bega Time of article published Mar 21, 2020

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Johannesburg - COULD South Africa’s sewage crisis play a role in the potential spread of Covid-19?

Water expert Dr Anthony Turton said it cannot be ruled out.

“The link between human health and sewage is well-established, but the link between sewage and corona is still tentative. What we do know with certainty that corona is likely to be more harmful to people with pre-disposing conditions.

“It’s here that sewage plays a role because poor hygiene is more likely to make people vulnerable simply by virtue of the fact that their immune systems are naturally in distress when ill from other causes,” said Turton.

The country’s current sewage crisis is out of control, “with almost all rivers now contaminated in some way”, he said. “Lagoons and the lower reaches of rivers are most at risk by virtue of the cumulative upstream pollution load that they are carrying. This leads to generally unhygienic conditions, but also compromises the drinking water feedstock.

“Therefore, where large bulk water treatment plant exists (Umgeni, Rand, Berg and Magalies) the risk is lower, but where small municipalities are also responsible for bulk potable water supply, we are likely to see a potential problem.

“We do know that hepatitisA can be waterborne so it’s logical to accept that people exposed to poor sanitation conditions, or people drinking water sourced from a contaminated river but not adequately treated to Sans (South African National Standard) 241, would be more at risk. The same logic tells us that a person with hepatitisA is already sick, so is thus more likely to be at risk from any other infection, of which Corovid-19 is but one of a range.

“We need to be careful not to raise panic, but its highly probable that our national sewage crisis will become an accelerating factor, simply by virtue of the fact that a range of other health issues generally renders the population more at risk of opportunistic infection. The extent of this as an accelerator is yet to be measured, but time will tell.”

Benoît Le Roy, a water engineer and founding member of the SA Water Chamber and the chief executive of Water Shortage SA, said: “We need to ensure that our vulnerable communities have their waterborne sewage systems working in perfect order so as to not pollute their water resources. Malfunctioning sewage plants are our Achilles heel in all this.”

The virus is reportedly able to survive in water that is not adequately disinfected, he said.

“This being the case is that once the virus in our sewage system it needs to be destroyed with a fully functional sewage treatment system, where a large number of our sewage systems are not fully operational. Water boards draw their water from what could be potentially infected water sources as a consequence.

“Our functional water boards do chlorinate water and hence should adequately cater for this aspect. The risk is where municipal infrastructure has collapsed and infected sewage is in contact with people.” 

Saturday Star

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