Govt report paints a bleak picture of South Africa's rivers

The Vaal River Water Management Area has no sites in good condition. Bonile Bam

The Vaal River Water Management Area has no sites in good condition. Bonile Bam

Published Oct 5, 2019


Johannesburg - A new government report has painted a bleak picture of the ecological health of South Africa’s rivers, finding only 15% in a good condition.

And these “few sites” ranked in AB, B or BC categories are mostly located in the upper reaches of catchments, according to the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation’s River EcoStatus Monitoring Programme State of Rivers Report 2017-2018.

It presents results for 364 sites spread throughout the country - around half are in a moderately modified condition C category.

“Only the Vaal River Water Management Area (WMA) had no sites in a good (better than C category) condition,” says the report.

It found that about 4% of sites are in an unsustainable (DE to E) condition, generally located in urban areas and subjected to modified flows and habitat alteration, in addition to pollution.

“These highly impaired sites are located in the Crocodile West section of the Limpopo (9 sites), the Vaal (4 sites) and one site in each of the Olifants, Berg, Mzimvubu-Tsitsikamma and Pongola-Mtamvuna WMAs.”

The report’s objective is to determine the ecological condition of the country’s rivers but because of “capacity constraints”, its results are based only on the assemblage of aquatic macro-invertebrates. These are described as “good, short-term, biotic indicators of integrated stressors” on river systems.

“The results show that upper reaches of rivers tend to be in a better condition, with the state of the rivers deteriorating downstream. Exceptions are the upper reaches of rivers in the Crocodile West, Bronkhorstspruit and Vaal catchments, where the rivers originate in industrial or mining areas.”

Certain sites, particularly in the Vaal and Orange catchments, “are too ephemeral in nature and will have to be discontinued altogether for the in-stream assessments. These sites will only be used for riparian assessments in future”.

Habitats at 11 of the sites “were altered to such an extent that it has become impossible to do macro-invertebrate assessments”.

Many sites were not sampled. 

“A major portion of these sites are inactive (39 sites) due to access problems or unsuitable flow conditions (57 sites).”

There were health and safety concerns at 12 sites. “Two sites have been discontinued due to the consistent high level of raw sewage, which constitutes a major health risk to staff.”

A lack of capacity and financial constraints remains a major challenge to implement the river monitoring programme, says the report.

This week, the National Biodiversity Assessment, released by the SA National Biodiversity Institute, found national monitoring data for river and inland wetland systems are "incomplete and insufficient" to show trends in ecological condition. "The River EcoStatus Monitoring Programme is in danger of failure. The National Wetland Monitoring Programme remains to be implemented."

The DWS report says: “The samplers have to go out in teams of at least two staff members. The only way of implementing the programme is by physically visiting the rivers, which involves transport (often using four-wheel drive vehicles), subsistence and travel.

"The recent cost-cutting measures implemented in the department necessitated the reduction in the number of sites monitored.

“Further financial implications are related to the procurement of essential sampling equipment and personal protective equipment, without which sampling cannot take place.”

It says parts of the country experienced low flow conditions, because of the drought and heavy water use, with some rivers ceasing to flow during the reporting period. These were thus not sampled.

“As more phenomena like these are experienced due to climate change, the country needs to put in place, and execute, strategies to lessen the impacts, while better managing land use and protection of water resources.

“River sites in densely populated areas such as Gauteng, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and some parts of Eastern Cape (Port Elizabeth, East London and Mthatha), have indicated poor conditions due to the lack of proper management and maintenance of sewage treatment works and the exceeding of carrying capacities,” says the report.

Rural areas, especially in the Eastern Cape, still lack proper sanitation. “Pit latrines are widely used and we cannot shy away from the possible contamination of water resources.

"Poor sanitation, whether urban or rural, is a threat to aquatic and human health, and one of the largest contributors to the deterioration of water resources.”

Formal and informal developments, mining and farming have caused severe deterioration of riparian zones and in-stream habitats.

Healthy river habitats are beneficial to the environment and to humans, supporting a high biodiversity of aquatic fauna and flora and the ability to provide goods and services beneficial to surrounding communities.

“Riparian plants can buffer impacts of temperature increases from climate change on in-stream habitats and reduce erosion.

"Municipalities need better and greener town planning and improved service delivery.

"Mining companies need to be held accountable ... and enforcement measures need to be tightened.

"Sustainable agricultural practices are encouraged with reduced use of fertilisers and water."

To solve implementation challenges, the programme needs to be well resourced.

“These challenges pose a huge risk of causing information gaps, preventing a robust understanding of our river systems,” says the report.

Mariette Liefferink, of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, says SA is planning the foundations to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

The target for SDG6.3 is to, “by 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimising release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally”.

“It’s difficult to understand how or whether the SDG6 will be achieved,” she remarks.

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