Too late for the health of South Africa’s freshwater resources?

upmarket national retail chain Woolworths has denied nationwide media reports that it had gone on record with its concerns about the impact polluted irrigation water was having on its fresh produce products.

A report in Beeld newspaper claimed Noël van Zyl, the buying manager at Interfruit, which supplies Woolworths with fresh produce, had said the chain was extremely concerned about the quality of South Africa’s water and its threat to food safety. Van Zyl was quoted as saying that Woolworths had recently discovered traces of the bacterial pathogen Escherichia coli (E. coli) on some fresh produce.

But in a statement Woolworths said one of its suppliers appeared to have been misquoted and no products had been rejected due to concerns about E. coli. Woolworths’ managing director of foods, Zyda Ryland, said, “all water used in food production or processing is sourced from either municipal sources or treated prior to use to ensure the required microbial standards are achieved”. She added that all final food products were still tested.

Beeld reporter Elise Tempelhoff was adamant that she didn’t misquote Van Zyl and Woolworths wouldn’t make a formal statement regarding their view of the quality of South Africa’s freshwater resources. Instead, Farmer’s Weekly was told the chain and its suppliers “have long been mindful of the need to use water wisely and preserve water quality”. According to Jaap Kelder, chairperson of the National Taxpayers’ Union, there are numerous instances of South African rivers that are important to agricultural and urban water needs being dangerously contaminated.

“In many rivers it’s already too bloody late to do anything. The Vaal has heavy metals, the Olifants and the Crocodile are totally contaminated. We’re facing a potential large-scale outbreak of cholera in the very near future,” he said. “The state of municipal water treatment plants in the country is absolutely pathetic. Of the many towns I’ve visited, only one – Barberton – had a water treatment plant in full working order. None of the rest were even 50% operational.”

Unsafe water resources is an issue that affects everyone, said Louis Meintjes, chairperson of the National Water Forum. “There are many good laws to protect our water resources, and government must start applying them effectively,” he added. “This issue can no longer be kept under a blanket. That will amount to writing the death warrant of people who are being fed these contaminated foods over time.”

Meanwhile, Business Day newspaper reported farmers were fearful of losing exports to strictly hygienic European markets because of contaminants in irrigation water. It also said retail chains Pick n Pay and Spar had added their voices to the sector’s concerns regarding declining water quality.Fears have been compounded by government’s refusal to acknowledge that South Africa has water quality problems.

Earlier this year, water affairs’ acting director general (DG), Nobubele Ngele, claimed that her department had everything under control. Yet, at the same time, she reportedly said that 23 out of 283 municipalities nationwide had “sufficiently operational water services”.

“Government wants to develop new farmers, but how can this be achieved if there’s no safe water?” asked Meintjes. “Even established commercial farmers are struggling with this problem.”Carin Bosman, former water affairs director of Water Resource Protection and Waste Management, left the department in 2006 after 20 years due to major differences of opinion with then-DG Jabulani Sindane on how to tackle mining pollution, among other issues. She now runs her own environmental consulting business.

“Coliform bacteria like E. coli are found in almost all surface water resources, because the animals that live in this water, and drink from it, defecate in it,” she explained. “This is why crops that are irrigated from surface water resources should always be washed or cooked prior to consumption. But elevated trends in E. coli will indicate possible contamination as a result of ineffective sewage treatment from a specific area.”

As regards Woolworths, she said “it doesn’t help to deny having a problem because then water affairs can’t solve it” and added that the department is “quite committed to going in and investigating reports of excessive contamination”. Bosman doesn’t believe that South Africa is under major threat of having all of its freshwater resources excessively polluted.

“Purifying water isn’t rocket science. Also, water is a renewable resource. Contaminated water can run off into the sea, and even groundwater can recover, although this can take years.”