Pay now or pay BIG later: Challenges for 2012

22 December 2011

No-one wants to pay more, for anything.  What is worrying, though, is that we find it so much easier to pay more for things like cigarettes and snacks, than paying for improved water treatment now, that will lessen the risks of us becoming very ill in later life (Ok, the cigarettes will speed this process up – so its double jeopardy for the smokers!). Stupid? Dumb? Poorly-informed??  We cannot rely on political direction as politicians get elected by pandering to this reluctance. They win votes by promising simple, cheap solutions to complicated, expensive problems.  The national regulator, read “Water Affairs” is crippled by too many administrative bureaucrats, having sacrificed engineering experience and scientific specialization on the altar of affirmative action for so long (although I now see Trevor Manuel is suggesting this practice has gone on for too long – talk about a wake-up! – but then he also voted for the Secrecy Bill, so his credibility is a tad shaky).  Not that this is a major issue anymore in a country where politicians put party before nation, some going even further, the ‘self’ before ‘party’ before ‘nation’ approach!

The coming year will bring some new challenges for South Africans, challenges that relate to understanding the environmental exposure risks which, arising from blatant inaction or inattention to issues, will have a devastating effect on our future, should they go unheeded for much longer.  Of course I am talking about water quality – but there are other issues, such as the development of a working understanding about carbon credits, climate change and etc, so that constructive debate can be engaged on a less-woolly, emotive basis.

Declining water quality is the biggest threat to South Africa’s socio-economic future. South Africa is and always has been a water-scarce country.  This has underpinned the type of water infrastructure that we have – one based on storing enough water in dams. The frenzied need to have enough (quantity) of water all but eclipsed the parallel issue of ensuring that the quality of the water did not impose additional challenges.  Basically if you have lots of stored water that is so polluted that it is a health hazard, then you should have taken the blinkers off a  lot sooner.

Man generates an enormous amount of waste – a lot of it in a very dangerous manner.  Significant amounts of water stored in South African dams is comprised of wastewater effluents – a “reuse and recycle” option that has been in place for decades.  This practice encompasses a whole host of risks, the most obvious being that related to eutrophication, i.e. wastewater from sewage, containing high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, released it into the environment leads to the growth of potentially-toxic algae.

While both nitrogen and phosphorus can contribute to aquatic eutrophication, phosphorus is often of greatest concern, as it is typically the limiting nutrient in freshwater aquatic ecosystems. Just as nitrogen is the limiting nutrient in land-based ecosystems (which is why we apply more N than P for vegetation establishment), contribution of the limiting nutrient to any ecosystem (terrestrial or aquatic) elicits the greatest growth response. Nutrient removal is not practiced to the required [environmental protection] degree in South Africa, a problem exacerbated by the decay of both physical [civil works] and skills infrastructure.

Sewerage treatment plants require massive capital investments and perhaps this explains why wastewater in most developing countries is discharged without treatment, or with only rudimentary [read ‘inadequate for environmental protection’] treatment.  However considering the impact of untreated water on the environment, any environment conscious government is duty bound to invest in these processes.  A huge component of the problem is education – across the entire societal spectrum, from decision-makers to Joe Public.  This is not happening.

Less obvious than the algae are what are now commonly-known as “emerging pollutants of concern“.  These do nasty things to your endocrine and other systems – slowly and insidiously.  The high population density in large cities, coupled with the high consumption level of these compounds, means that these pollutants reach natural water via urban wastewater treatment plants. As a result, these compounds, such as fibrates (used for cholesterol control), have been detected for several years now in the effluents of water treatment plants, continental, marine and subterranean waters, and even in water used for human consumption.   South Africa does not monitor for these – we are still trapped at the “store water in dams stage”.

Droplets will develop this debate into 2012. To do this we will examine what happens in countries that are water-rich – how do they manage their water??  Have they just sat back, or are they also concerned about water quality – even if they have so much water?

You will find that they have been very concerned, for a long time!

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