Neels Blom Columnist
Toxic mix: Litter, algae and water hyacinth are seen near the wall of Hartbeespoort Dam in the North-West. The Vaal River is similarly choking under pollution. Picture: DANIEL BORN/THE TIMES
Toxic mix: Litter, algae and water hyacinth are seen near the wall of Hartbeespoort Dam in the North-West. The Vaal River is similarly choking under pollution. Picture: DANIEL BORN/THE TIMES

The Vaal River has been described as an open sewer, most frequently by people who live on its banks, despite protestations to the contrary by the department of water & sanitation. It smells of dead things and faeces.

SA’s water crisis is not confined to the Vaal River, though it is singled out because the system supports about 60% of the economy and provides drinking water to about 45% of the population.

Neither did it happen overnight. In a paper by limnologist William Harding, published by the Water Institute of Southern Africa in 2010, he writes that South African authorities have known since the 1970s about the country’s escalating water crisis at all of its major rivers and at most of its impoundments.

Yet, in February 2008, when the rainy season was ending, a cabinet minister said there was no water crisis in SA. The then water and forestry minister, Lindiwe Hendricks, did not attribute SA’s good fortune to an unusually strong La Niña system over the Pacific during 2007/2008, but spoke instead of what she termed alarmist notions about the government’s service-delivery failures.

She was wrong. And her misrepresentation of the country’s water situation still prevails at the department under a succession of ministers, as the denial of a link between faecal contamination and fish kills illustrates.

Although the department, now under parliamentary investigation, is constitutionally constrained from interfering with the municipalities that have responsibility for water and sanitation, the constitution also provides guidelines under which such an intervention would be lawful. At the department of co-operative governance’s last count, 87 (31%) of SA’s 278 municipalities require urgent financial and management intervention.

Out-of-pocket municipalities are unable to maintain ageing sewage works, resulting in faecal matter (and other comparably toxic substances) in wastewater systems entering stormwater systems and draining into the country’s rivers and impoundments.

Wastewater, as water-politics specialist Anthony Turton says, must be viewed as a resource and harvested in a treatment process not only for its purified-water yield, but also for valuable plant nutrients.

The problem with untreated wastewater entering the system is the nutrients found in faeces, fertiliser run-off, detergents and industrial effluent.

Harding writes that at a certain threshold of excess in water, these nutrients (chiefly nitrogen and phosphates) cause a process called eutrophication — an overdevelopment of plant biomass, notably cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae blooms.

Blue-green algae consumes the dissolved oxygen in water at night, releases excess oxygen in daylight, and raises the pH of the water, factors that account for the mass fish mortality in the Vaal River. Under conditions of exponential growth in impoundments such as the Hartbeespoort Dam and in the Vaal River, cyanobacteria release a range of potent and deadly toxins.

Recreational contact can cause gastrointestinal disorders and kill people who eat fish in which toxins have built up to high concentrations. This accounts for the closure of the Vaal River for rafting and recreational fishing from above the Barrage in the east to as far west as Orkney, according to tourism operators.

Yet, 16 years after SA became officially water constrained, it still has an almost nonexistent eutrophication management structure. Conventional treatment systems don’t eliminate cyanobacteria.

Harding writes that the process of nutrient enrichment towards elevated trophic states is slow and insidious, with problems often only becoming apparent long after pollution.

"Assuming that the attenuation of loads is effective, the restoration period may be as long as 10 to 15 years."

These dangers have been known for a long time. In 2008, a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) study found that, although no deaths have been attributed to cyanotoxins, its deadly effect follows as consequential illnesses because of long-term exposure. The CSIR says the cyanobacterial blooms are likely in most rivers and impoundments because of high levels of eutrophication caused by the "inadequate treatment of domestic and industrial effluents" that are discharged in their catchments.

These studies refer to only some of the early warnings about SA’s mounting water crisis, which have been either misunderstood, wilfully ignored, dismissed as alarmist or designed to discredit the government. Many politicians, especially when referring to the Western Cape’s prospect of Day Zero, have instead blamed drought and seemed satisfied with the declaration of the economy as water constrained in 2002, after the National Water Resource Strategy reported that SA has allocated 98% of its total water resource.

The weather is a factor in changing rainfall patterns and higher temperatures that accelerate eutrophication, but it cannot be blamed for inaction or for failing to accommodate rapid urbanisation. The SA Weather Service keeps records, which show that when El Niño develops over the Pacific, Southern Africa is likely to experience sporadic prolonged drought, such as those recorded from 1964-1970, 1991-1995, 2002-2005 and 2014-2017.

In a paper about drought, the agency says that during these periods there is insufficient time for natural resources and the economy to recover from each rainfall-deficit period (less than 20%-25% of the norm).

The pattern may be somewhat erratic, but clearly shows that SA does and will experience severe drought.

Yet, 16 years after SA became officially water constrained, it still has an almost nonexistent eutrophication management structure. Conventional treatment systems don’t eliminate cyanobacteria.

SA is facing a water crisis. It seems obvious that the remedy, apart from attenuation efforts at dams and rivers, must be to stop the pollution at source — where municipal infrastructure has failed.

This will cost up to R23bn, according to the government’s estimates, but dysfunctional municipalities have reached this state because they are broke. Municipalities say almost in unison that they are broke because water users can’t pay their bills. Defaulting water users say they have no money because they are unemployed.

Turton puts the cost of attenuation on the Vaal to safe levels at R800bn to R1 trillion. The full effects of cyanobacterial poisoning will manifest for decades to come, so R23bn for an infrastructure fix seems like small change.

Solving SA’s water crisis involves much more than the water department’s mandate and budget. Should it happen, a catastrophic collapse of the country’s water supplies will not be termed a water-supply crisis because it will have advanced to health and humanitarian consequences.

In 2008, Turton, then a researcher at the CSIR, warned in a paper that SA’s water crisis would likely escalate to social unrest and public violence — water wars — so to speak. The CSIR gagged the paper over images of xenophobic violence linked to the likely outcomes of the mounting water crisis, and suspended Turton for alerting the media. Turton’s forecast has come to pass and the catastrophe has been triggered. SA already experiences daily violent protests linked to service-delivery failures. These are, indeed, SA’s water wars — and worse is to come.

blomn@businesslive.co.za

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