Water Affairs has no plan for SA’s critically polluted dams

About 62% of South Africa’s dams and reservoirs are eutrophic, where increased nutrient content causes phytoplankton blooms that starve water bodies of oxygen.

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Although toxins emitted by dying cyanobacterial blooms (blue-green algae) have severe implications for human and animal health, government admitted it has no management strategy for eutrophic dams and reservoirs.

Responding to parliamentary questions in August, the water affairs department said the National Aquatic Ecosystem Health Monitoring Programme only applies to rivers.South African limnologist Dr Bill Harding said 28% of the country’s 32 billion litres of stored water is “critically impaired”, while “32% is already a management issue”.

“Water affairs plays down the seriousness of these facts, saying that Rand Water and other water boards provide people with beautiful water, but this is an elitist subterfuge, as it only applies to people in the major cities,” he claimed.

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Dr Paul Oberholster, limnologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), said a critical skills shortage in the department was partly to blame for government’s failure to come up with a management plan. “There’s only a few limnologists in the country. Of these, two are retired and the rest are consultants.

At present, you simply can’t study limnology in South Africa. We must get these skills into the education system pronto.” Dr Harding said the country’s deteriorating wastewater-management systems were largely to blame for eutrophic dams and reservoirs.

“If we fix the wastewater problem, we can make headway within a year. For 30 to 40 years, we haven’t removed phosphates from the effluent, and phosphates are a major cause of the problem. “Since 2004, a group of us has made representations to government on an intensive training programme that would get skills in the department up to scratch on a regional and national basis, working in partnership with a respected university. But they’ve blocked all our advances. They’re extremely arrogant and take things incredibly personally,” said Dr Harding.

Dr Oberholster said the science and technology department must intervene to solve the skills shortage. “We need to send people out to study this stuff, with the proviso that they work another four years in a government institution. Then maybe we need to need look at sourcing our people out to the private sector, because when you’re getting R300 000 more in this sector, why would you want to sit at the CSIR?,” he said.

Carin Bosman, former water affairs department deputy director general turned private consultant, said phosphates and nitrates weren’t meant to end up in water sources. “They’re meant to end up on the land, but we put them in the water because we’ve inherited a British water-borne system ill-suited to our small rivers. “We must either convince the Pick ‘n Pays or Shoprites of the northern suburbs to sell detergents without phosphates, or we must develop a treatment technology to remove them from the effluent.”