6 April 2014

Unimpacted rivers and streams are increasingly threatened by the wastes of a growing population (Photo: Bill Harding)

Unimpacted rivers and streams are increasingly threatened by the wastes of a growing population (Photo: Bill Harding)

Uncontrolled enrichment of our water resources with wastewater and other pollutants is a big problem that is receiving very little attention.  This article examines some of the associated issues and the dangers of considering ‘living with the problem’, i.e. accepting it as a necessary evil rather than taking the obvious step of dealing with it.  The “Do Nothing” option, more commonly associated with protecting and conserving the environment, may seem attractive here – based on the argument that, because so much infrastructure is broken already, there is not enough money to do anything more than patch up what we have.

(This article was prepared by Bill Harding and Jeff Thornton of International Environmental Management Services Ltd., a US-registered, not-for-profit skills transfer company, specializing in water resource management.  Both are limnologists with an in-depth understanding of eutrophication and reservoir management in South Africa).

Eutrophication, or the enrichment of rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands with nitrogen and phosphorus, is inarguably a global threat to water resources, if not the greatest threat to the finite quantity of this life-sustaining chemical compound.  Eutrophication also impacts the marine environment but the focus of this analysis is the freshwater realm, as this is the realm with which we humans are in most direct contact.

In South Africa, as in many other countries, the primary origin of eutrophication arises from the discharge of inadequately treated sewage, dumped into our rivers and dams.  Even where such wastewater is efficiently treated, the concentration of phosphorus is, in the majority of cases, not reduced to levels that will offset problematical eutrophication.  The problem is exacerbated by sustained inattention thereto, as well as the now well known, aggravating South African issue of failing sewage treatment plant infrastructure.  As acknowledged by South Africa’s former Director General of Water Affairs, Mike Muller – “water quality challenges are growing“.  Muller also concedes that “water resource quality is also declining”  – including at Hartbeespoort Dam – where alleged remediation efforts have now cost more than was spent on Nkandla!  Wastewater effluents are not treated to the extent that they will not threaten our water resources (Photo: Bill Harding)

Wastewater effluents are not treated to the extent that they will not threaten our water resources (Photo: Bill Harding)

Wastewater treatment plants, or “point-sources” as they are defined, are not the only sources of nutrients.  A wide range of often, hard-to-pinpoint (i.e. = hard to quantify) sources, collectively termed “non-point sources” or “NPS”, further complicate the situation.  Agricultural operations are the best-known example of non-point origins of runoff, bearing nutrients from fertilizers or animal husbandry operations.  Stormwater runoff, from city streets also is a major source of a sometimes very nasty mix of nonpoint source pollutants.

Graphical representation of how increasing levels of eutrophication impact negatively on aquatic ecosystems (Source: Jarvis 1988)

Graphical representation of how increasing levels of eutrophication impact negatively on aquatic ecosystems (Source: Jarvis 1988)


Importantly, eutrophication – seen simply as nutrient enrichment, – is merely a proxy for all of the other chemicals that enter a typical sewerage system.  While human wastes are rich in nutrients, they are also rich in all the other chemicals and drugs commonly associated with human society.  So, in crude terms, a lot of what goes into a toilet – or any house drain connected to a sewer – ends up in a river or dam.  Not a great idea, when you think about it – but, the again, not many people give it much thought after they have pressed the flush lever!  You might be shocked to learn what some householders dispose of down their drains!  Or… would you?

South Africa stores the bulk of its water resources in dams – our primary source of “raw” water.  The threat to these dams, posed by eutrophication, has been both well known and documented since the late 1960s.  As these stored waters become increasingly eutrophic – and almost 50% already are – the cost of treating the water to desirable standards also increases.  Just recently, the Vice-Rector for Research of Stellenbosch University wrote in the press that, inter alia, “South Africa has major challenges when it comes to the management of the water it has.  A lack of expertise at all levels and the concomitant lack of the necessary infrastructure, especially in informal settlements, have left thousands of people without access to clean drinking water.  Rivers are being polluted and municipal water treatment systems are failing.”  This is a damning indictment of failure to act in a strategic and proactive manner – but this is not the first time we have heard these statements, nor will it be the last, we fear.  All that happens is that more people come to the realisation that something is very wrong.  How many people will have to regurgitate the same warnings before the message finally hits home?

Even more recent are warnings of dire water quantity shortages – which continue to ignore the additional limitations of quality imposed on quantity (if you have 100 liters of water, but twenty litters are polluted, then you actually only have 80 liters that you can use!).  Too much attention has been applied to the provision of taps and toilets, all the while ignoring pollution of the water resources that connect thereto.

Stormwater drains from informal settlements convey a toxic mix of pollutants into rivers (Photo: Bill Harding)

Stormwater drains from informal settlements convey a toxic mix of pollutants into rivers (Photo: Bill Harding)

Treatment requirements for wastewater in South Africa do not focus to any demonstrable degree on the removal of phosphorus (P).  While some catchments are governed by what is known as the “one milligram per liter phosphorus standard”, this is largely irrelevant as concentrations pale in the face of the volumes discharged.  Loads of nutrients, rather than concentrations, remain the definitive issue.  It’s an issue of how many straws broke the camels back, not the size of the individual straw.

The irrelevance of the P standard, derived back in the 1980s, has been discussed in earlier posts.  In addition to the central issue of nutrient loads, i.e. the product of (concentration) x (volume discharged), the generic application of such a standard is of little value where each and very situation is case specific, i.e. the load:response characteristics of individual dams are just that, individual.  Herein lies the value of the USA-developed Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) protocol, which sets out to derive a specific set of rules and guidelines for each individual catchment to lake scenario.

With regard to the aforementioned ‘P standard’, or TMDLs for that matter, the cost of implementing any standard needs to be weighed against the cost of the consequences of not doing so, i.e. the resultant poor and worsening water quality, affecting not only ecosystem health and aesthetics, but also public health, tourism, and economic production.  Given that the origin of this pollution derives from wastewater, it is not only nutrients but also a Pandora’s Box of antibiotics, hormones such as oestrogen and what are known as Emerging Pollutants of Concern (EPoCs), i.e. all the other compounds which we know little about in terms of what they will do to our aquatic environments.  As yet there are no indications that basic to intermediate wastewater treatment effectively breaks the chain of exposure to such compounds arising from wastewater.  As noted in a recent forum discussion, ‘Pharmaceutical metabolic chemicals from human excretion, present in some water systems, are enough to detrimentally affect flora and fauna in sources that are used continuously to provide major municipal potable water systems. The ability of conventional treatment to remove these chemicals is not fully understood’.

Changing from Polluter Pays to Ratepayer Pays

In South Africa the precursors of the following debate appear to be in play:  Given the not insignificant cost of simply bringing the existing wastewater treatment works up to basic operational standards, the additional costs and skills requirements of advanced nutrient removal are a luxury that this Third World economy cannot sustain.  Additionally, that the P standard is onerous and should be relaxed still further.  Allied to this debate is this: while water utilities may be able to deliver water to households, they may not be able to guarantee the quality thereof, i.e. the onus would be on the end user to filter that portion required for drinking and food preparation. That said, there is also a growing market for end of potable water supply filtration units and bottled water… but the difference would be the ability of the end users to afford such “luxuries”.

The sinister element in this covert argument is that the current and deemed onus on the polluter to not pollute – or if he/she does then the onus is on the polluter to pay for any or all damages – shifts to one where the end-user, commonly the ratepayer (you and me), will bear the costs of ensuring that our water that is safe to drink.  This is a very slippery and dangerous slope to be on – yet many are already on it.  Treatment as close to the source of the problem remains the golden rule.   The brochure heralding the 2013 Strategic Water Partners Network (SWPN) does not contain the words “water quality’!  While some so-called Water Stewardship efforts acknowledge the threats posed by poor water quality, most only have this on their long-term “to-do” lists.  This tendency towards ‘misguided water management‘ apparently occurs at some of the world’s largest companies.  Maybe they should hire better qualified advisors!

Here’s another, relevant comment from contemporary debate: “Why don’t we create real disincentives for companies so [that] they don’t pollute natural waters in the first place?  Why isn’t this part of the cost of doing business?  We’re really just shifting the cost to ratepayers who have to pay more for increased monitoring and more expensive treatment processes. So to me, the economic arguments against environmental regulations don’t hold water (so to speak)”.

Of course there is an important Catch-22 situation here – which astute readers will, no doubt, have picked up early on:  insofar as sewage is concerned, the ratepayer is also the polluter – unless he or she is not connected to a reticulated sewer system.  However, common sense dictates that it is better to prevent lakes and rivers becoming contaminated with the derivatives of human excrement, rather than allow this to happen and treat the resultant mess (and still hope to swim, fish and boat at the same lake)!  So, civil society (loosely interpreted = ratepayers or taxpayers) needs to demand that their wastes get treated properly shortly after they are produced – and be prepared to pay for it.  Civil society needs to have a good look in the mirror and ask why it has not demanded this already?  How much would you be prepared to pay per month to ensure that the rivers and dams in your neck of the woods don’t simply become a maturation pond for the sewage works?  Have you thought about this at all?

Allowing dams to become polluted affects everyone who uses them (Photo: Bill Harding)

Allowing dams to become polluted affects everyone who uses them (Photo: Bill Harding)

In countries such as South Africa, the threat to the public health in certain sectors of the community, where such technology would not or could not be applied, could likely to lead to a major public health impact.  Health impacts would range from gastro-enteritis to parasitic infections to cholera and related diseases.  Chronic exposure to the as-yet unknown effects of mixtures of chemicals, is a reality.  While some of these may occur even with eutrophication management programs in place, the scale of such impacts would be considerably increased without such efforts.  Epidemic illnesses, acute or chronic, have a cost burden to society that is likely to far exceed the cost of wastewater treatment.  These costs include not only financial losses through absenteeism amongst employees, but also social consequences associated with loss of wages and loss of wage-earning family members as a consequence of fatal illnesses, such as cholera.  And these impacts will be most severe amongst the poorest sections of the population.  South Africa already suffers from a high incidence of morbidity arising from the TB-HIV-Aids pandemic, i.e. immuno-compromised individuals.  Exposure to water possibly containing drugs, hormones or toxicants would likely worsen the health of those already suffering from these dread conditions.

Common sense dictates that these are arguments that should not be contemplated under any circumstances, yet in a country where the threat of eutrophication is still poorly understood – and in which it has previously been accepted that eutrophication is not a threat – such reasoning may be entertained by the uninformed and/or the unwitting.  Arguments about cost are utterly specious, as society will pay one way or another.  While there might be a saving on infrastructure at the source end, the price will be paid in diminished water quality – and hence availability – at the sink end… In South Africa and elsewhere, the inter-related dynamic of quality and quantity has not yet struck home…but it will.  And to the detriment of the poorer sections of the community, who can least afford alternative sources of potable water.  The associated long-term risks to the socio-economic future of this country would be nothing less than catastrophic.

Everyone benefits from a clean, unpolluted environment (Photo: Bill Harding)

Everyone benefits from a clean, unpolluted environment (Photo: Bill Harding)

As one example, South Africa currently benefits from significant tourism.  Should water quality decline, with concomitant changes in the safety of potable water, tourism potential may also decline.  Certain types of contact recreation, for example swimming and canoeing, could be seriously affected.  For elected officials, lost revenue from tourism, especially, could be a serious consideration.  Along with such lost revenue would be lost jobs…something of which South Africa cannot afford any more of.

The additional economic ramifications also should be considered, with regard to the cost implications of poor water quality on industry, such as the bottling and brewing industries, and also on agriculture where the resultant algal blooms could clog irrigation systems and possibly degrade the quality of crops, some of which, at least, have export value.  Overseas importers of South African crops are unlikely to accept any products where wastewater effluents may have compromised the irrigation water, as may well be the case for the Berg River downstream of Paarl and Wellington, the Vaal River downstream of the Barrage and etc.  Poor yields or contaminated crops would drive up food prices, while the job losses associated with declining incomes would put significant pressure on the economy.  Bottling and brewing companies will face increasing costs, which would have to be passed along to the consumers and, again, most acutely affect the poorer sections of the community.  This would further restrict the access of the poorer sectors of the community to safe drinking water and exacerbate risks associated with epidemic diseases.

In other words, the simplistic view of “living with eutrophication” being an option for sober consideration has significant and serious consequences for the economy.  Consequences that transcend many socio-economic sectors and will negatively affect society at large.

Farms are a source of considerable pollution (Photo: Bill Harding)

Farms are a source of considerable pollution (Photo: Bill Harding)

In the US, the moves to contest appeals for nutrient reduction are nowadays related less to the treatment of sewage as to the treatment of nonpoint pollutants.  The Laurentian Great Lakes system, for example, is bounded by many large cities (such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Buffalo and others), communities who have invested heavily in wastewater treatment.  These communities have implemented tertiary wastewater treatment practices to remove nutrients from their treated sewage discharges.  Many other, smaller communities have at least primary treatment (and often secondary treatment) plants in place to address the point sources of nutrients causing eutrophication – at least in some measure.  There is no move toward repealing these actions.  Wastewater treatment of municipal wastewater has managed to either improve the water quality of lakes or at least maintain the water quality in the face of increasing development and urbanization.  Data from southeastern Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan, for example, demonstrated that in each case where data exist, water quality has been stabilized despite increasing populations and lake use. Community members are well aware of this status, and are proud of the part that they have played in improving water quality.  Hence there is no contest of the use of wastewater treatment as an essential element of lake management.

What is being contested, however, is the move toward asking more of municipalities, rather than addressing the largest nonpoint source pollution generators, the farmers.  Simple steps, such as buffer strips, contour farming, and related stream bank and stream course protection, are resisted by the agricultural community as placing too onerous a burden on the “farmers.”

Very pretty but they should not be allowed to stand in their drinking water! (Photo: Bill Harding)

Very pretty but they should not be allowed to stand in their drinking water! (Photo: Bill Harding)

The “farmers” have maintained the mystique of the family farm, although, in our opinion, there are relatively few family farms left – most are corporate farms that are run as businesses.  While we do not have the actual data to substantiate that opinion, we are aware, for example, that at least in southeast Wisconsin, many farms are owned by corporations that set nutrient application protocols based on a text book rather than on actual conditions on the farms…it is cheaper to buy the same amount per acre of fertilizers and ship them all of your properties than to do soil tests on each property and buy just the necessary amount of fertilizer (=zero-based fertilization)!  Actions such as this mean that there are excess nutrients being applied that are available to enter aquatic systems.  It is moves to minimize this management measure that are being contested.  That said, the US Department of Agriculture, for example, does have soil testing requirements in order for farmers to receive federal subsidies, so there are ways to “force” farmers to engage in good housekeeping practices.  Food for thought!

What this means is that there is work for agricultural consultants who conduct these soil tests, work for co-ops that order and distribute fertilizers, and work for farmers (or farm managers/staff) who apply these chemicals additives.  It also means that water quality is protected, as are the associated jobs in tourism, recreation, and real estate!

Speaking of real estate, many of the lakeshore properties (at least in Wisconsin) are owned by influential people who value their investments in the properties!  They frequently also have the ear of the politicians, so repeal of water quality requirements is unlikely/remote.  The politicians seem to keenly balance the farmers and the lakeshore property owners!!  In South Africa, by contrast, lakeshore property owners appear to have enormous tolerance for the polluted water that they look at every day.

Although somewhat academic, while reservoir and eutrophication management are invisible in this country, we think that before any considerations to downgrade eutrophication management are taken, South Africa would do well to consider the situation in neighboring countries, elsewhere in Africa, and continue to maintain the balance between point source controls and water quality…based on case- or system-specific allocation of nutrient loading rules to rivers and dams.  The time for commencing such a strategic process is already long overdue.  These processes are critical for the sustainable economic development of the country and its population.

It may well be nigh impossible to reverse the level of eutrophication in some cases but, with appropriate advice and forethought, it will be possible to draw a line under the present conditions and ensure that they become no worse.  Importantly, that currently unimpacted waters remain so.

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