Picture: 123 RF / BORGOGNIELS
Picture: 123 RF / BORGOGNIELS

If ever there was a clear and present danger to SA, it is its inability to manage its water resources, and it is a threat that goes far beyond immediate crises precipitated by isolated contamination or drought. Without a reliable supply of potable water, no community dare entertain hope for a better life, and without hope the nation is truly lost.

The sewage pollution of the Vaal River is such an immediate crisis, and it needs an immediate intervention by everyone in the position to act, but most urgently by the agencies at all three tiers of government. So far only civil society has had a measure of success by raising public awareness and forming an alliance that will take legal action against various organs of the state.

The pollution of the Vaal, this time mainly with faecal matter pouring into its catchment from obsolete and inappropriate sewerage infrastructure, raises the acuity of the crisis. The river is the country’s second biggest by volume and arguably its most important. About 60% of the national economy depends on water abstracted from the Vaal Dam and about 45% of the country’s population is supplied with drinking water from this source.

It is reasonable to say that among the country’s 278 municipalities it would be the exception to find any that are not in the grip of a water-and-sewage system crisis.

For the moment, the pollution originates mostly downstream from the abstraction point, but this scarcely makes any difference to the bigger picture. To maintain a supply of reasonably clean if untreated water to communities downstream — that is everyone from the Vaal Dam to at least as far away as the Bloemhof Dam — water supplied via the Lesotho Highlands Water Project is used to dilute a contaminated system.

This means the cost of treatment of water supplied to the country’s economic heartland rises considerably. This is made worse by the inter-basin transfer from the Atlantic Ocean catchment to the Indian Ocean catchment via human settlements north of the Witwatersrand.

It means when relatively minor malfunctions happen, they do not only have severe effects on the health and economies of downstream communities, but directly affect everyone upstream.

The bigger picture is that what is happening on the Vaal is also happening across the country, including in DA-run districts, indicating a deeper malaise than what isolated crises suggest. Any reduction of the wastewater and stormwater flow to the Hartbeespoort Dam and Crocodile River complex, for instance, would overtax the already catastrophically polluted system and ruin the farming and mining economies downstream.

It is reasonable to say that among the country’s 278 municipalities it would be the exception to find any that are not in the grip of a water-and-sewage system crisis.

Municipalities have borne the brunt of the blame and the related service-delivery protests. That may be justified, but a remedy for the country’s water and sanitation problems must involve the national and provincial governments.

While Gauteng’s government is intervening at Emfuleni on the north bank of the Vaal, for many people it is too little too late. Moreover, Emfuleni is but one derelict municipality among a host of others that are permitting sewage spills and acid mine-water drainage. At the highest point is Johannesburg itself, where blocked wastewater systems spill faeces into the streets and into the stormwater system every day.

The notice by the department of water & sanitation that it was seeking funding to tackle the issue betrays a profound ignorance of the urgency and of the dire consequences of its procrastination. It may be so that maladministration under the department’s former minister, Nomvula Mokonyane, is to blame for its cash problems, but that is no reason to delay action any further.

There is overwhelming evidence that the conditions exist at municipalities across the country for provincial and national government interventions under the constitution. SA faces many dangers, but without water none of those can be tackled. The time to act is now before hope, too, is abandoned.