Why do we have a Water Crisis ?

3 February 2011

Calf affected by cyanotoxins

South Africa has a Water (Quality) Crisis for the following reasons (not in any particular order):

1. Thirty-five percent (35%) of  our dams exceed acceptable limits of nutrient enrichment, creating a situation in which potentially-toxic algal blooms occur with increasing frequency.  The National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS 2004) lists a higher figure, forty-two percent (42%).  Most of these dams are in Gauteng.

2. The main source of the nutrient enrichment is from phosphorus contained in wastewater (sewage effluents), as well as contributions from urban runoff, agriculture and industry.

3. Stripping of phosphorus from wastewater to ecologically-acceptable levels is not yet practiced in South Africa.

Dead and dying cattle following cyanotoxin poisoning (Southern Cape)

4. The majority of our wastewater treatment plants have been shown to be failing (Green Drop Report), i.e. greater than normal discharges of nutrients are taking place into our dams and coastal zones.

5. The Toxic Algal Management Strategy has not been implemented.  There is no proactive warning system or mechanism whereby affected waters can be declared off-limits to the public or livestock.  Much needed epidemiological research into links between cyanobacteria and Alzheimers Disease, are not being implemented.

6. Although South Africa is dependent on dams, there is no pro-active programme of monitoring.  The much-vaunted NEMP (National Eutrophication Monitoring Programme) is entirely reactive and reports are never published.

7. The Department of Water Affairs has no in-house skills trained to manage dams as ecological systems.  In fact, the word “dam” does not occur in the National Aquatic Ecosystem Health  Monitoring Protocol (NAEHMP). Notwithstanding this, the DWA continues to be reluctant to relinquish remediation programmes to the CMAs.

8. Eutrophication is a proxy for a host of other evils, these being pharmaceutical compounds (endocrine disrupting, antibiotics and the like), pesticides and other noxious compounds.

Toxic algal bloom at intake to Hartbeespoort Dam treatment works

9. Research into toxic algae has come to an almost complete halt.  The WRC manager tasked with running this and many other important water quality programmes, was mysteriously dismissed during 2010.

10. The problem of acid mine drainage, AMD, is very significant – albeit affecting areas of one region.  Water quality problems span the entire country in various forms.

11. The Department of Water Affairs continues to decline offers of help and support from the residual base of lake-management skills left in South Africa.

12. Although the DWA acknowledged months ago that removal of phosphorus from detergents could reduce loading to wastewater treatment works by an average of 25%, nothing further has been done about this.

13. Research into the use of versatile biomonitoring techniques has been terminated due to the lack of interest by the Department of Water Affairs.

14. Immediately-implementable and proven technologies exist whereby the impact of poorly-treated wastewater could be addressed.  These technologies also offer parallel opportunities for economic and food security.  Local testing has been declined on the basis of “we will develop our own” !

15. Local authorities have no skills at all to understand or address these problems.  Limited skills exist within the major water treatment utilities (e.g. Rand and Umgeni Water).

16. The existence of the crisis is admitted by some key role players in certain forums, and denied by the same people in others.

17. People who advised the regulator into the crisis are still providing advice.

18. The general public is not sufficiently informed about the nature of the problem and how they can help to alleviate it.

19. Remedial programmes are left to the control of untrained individuals.

20. All of the above issues have been known for many, many years, yet the warnings and red flags continue to be denied and ignored.  The longer the problem persists, the worse it gets.

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