Water quality is a problem in South Africa: has the penny finally dropped… ?

30 July 2015

Wastewater effluents destroy rivers and lakes (Photo: Bill Harding)

Wastewater (sewage) effluents are the major threat to South African reservoirs (Photo: Bill Harding)

A pleasing development this week has been the long-overdue acknowledgement that water quality is the ‘elephant in the room’, insofar as the optimal future use of South African water resources is concerned (see article here).  Of course this is not a new discovery – the lack of attention to water quality issues has been bemoaned for a very long time (a simple search of this blog will reveal many related articles and cautions over the past five years) – yet the warnings have been ignored or now seemingly considered to have been part of a ‘debate’.  On the debate issue, however, no formal collegiate interactions have been initiated, other than a very short-lived one-day attempt by the Water Research Commission a couple of years ago.  Some who may consider the ‘debate’ to now be over, have themselves been instrumental in denying the existence of a water quality problem for a long time.

So, if the attitude is now changing, this is very good news – especially that the responsible national department is now apparently moving towards developing an Integrated Water Quality Management initiative – lets hope they don’t waste any more time reinventing wheels.  While fingers are being pointed at a ‘piecemeal’ approach to the problem by the Dept of Water and Sanitation, one can only ask why their consultant advisors did not alert them to the dangers of ignoring water quality issues for so long?

FACT: With inadequate quantities of freshwater, development in South Africa will be severely constrained. If the quality of these limited supplies is also compromised, prospects for sustainable development effectively disappear.  These simple truths have been clear and evident in South Africa for several decades.

All the while the problem has steadily worsened.  As I have detailed in a recent paper entitled “Living with Eutrophication: Realities and Challenges in South Africa” published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, wastewater-originated enrichment now affects around 70% of the countries bulk water storages – i.e. our reservoirs, more commonly referred to as dams.  Furthermore, I illustrated in the same paper, as well as, inter alia, in a plenary address to the International Society of Limnology (SIL) in 2010, the lack of an informed and skilled cohort of aquatic scientists necessary to deal with the problem (we may of course see more engineers imported from Cuba rather than an attempt to rebuild local knowledge and re-establish local institutional memory).

For me, as someone who has (in the words of a colleague) “contributed very significantly to the assessment of various problems in affected reservoirs (harmful algal blooms, organic pollutants, etc.), and has been vociferous in drawing attention to them, while stalwartly working to devise management strategies (such as maximum load determination protocols) to limit causal drivers sufficiently to restrict their impact to pre-designated ‘tolerable’ levels, commensurate with criteria relevant to intended water use“,  the lack of attention to water quality has been extremely frustrating.  Offers to provide the national department with relevant upskilling has consistently been declined.

Resolving the water quality issues in South Africa will not be easy.  The country remains hell-bent on connecting more and more people to reticulated sewerage systems – sending more and more sewage to failing, failed or just simply inadequate wastewater treatment plants, i.e. sending more and more poorly treated effluent into our dams, or into the coastal zone.  In summary, here we have a sanitation issue that uses high quality potable water to flush waste into the dams from which potable water has to again be processed.

(Author: Bill Harding is a professional aquatic scientist and the only South African to hold the formal Certified Lake Manager (CLM) accreditation certified by the North American Lake Management Society (NALMS). This is based on holistic management, recognizing and strongly advocating integrated management of inland waters and their drainage basins.  He has been aware of and involved with the assessment of eutrophication threats facing South Africa for 40 years – and he has developed key assessment tools to guide the understanding and management thereof.  He has also published key analyses on the relevance of supposed management techniques in South Africa). 

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