What about our water quality?

In the midst of the recent heat wave and prolonged drought, city folks were reminded of man’s dependence on water.

Farmers, however, need no such reminder, especially not at this time of the year, when they await signs of rain.
After years of denying that South Africa is facing a water crisis, the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation, under Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, seems to be taking the situation more seriously.

However, budget restraints and policies putting the control of municipal water in the hands of local government are severely hampering the minister’s efforts. Thus far, the focus has been on supply, not quality. Minister Mokonyane is adamant that our water quality is comparable with the best in the world. And it is – if the parameters used to judge quality are applied selectively.

According to Professor Anthony Turton of the University of the Free State’s Centre for Environmental Management, levels of microcystin, a potent toxin prevalent in South Africa’s water resources, are among the highest in the word, as high as 18 000µg/l (see story on page 32). The World Health Organisation’s provisional value for drinking water is 1µg/l.

The toxin causes liver damage and is believed to cause genetic mutations and cancer. Although there are methods of treating water carrying the bacteria producing it, South Africa does not have the necessary technology. And there is no guarantee that the technology would be able to cope with the high levels of the toxins in our water.

Government’s excuse for not reacting to the microcystin problem is that no research has as yet been conducted proving that it damages DNA – but it is not willing to fund such research either. Although the effects of microcystins are still being questioned, the health and safety implications of the overall high levels of bacteria in our water are not. Two-thirds of our largest 50 dams have unacceptably high levels of phosphate and nitrate. And it is nitrate that feeds on the bacteria producing the toxins which are slowly poisoning us.

A 2013 EU report revealed that only 5% of South Africa’s hazardous waste is dumped at the correct waste disposal sites. Thousands of abandoned mines leak acid mine water (AMW) into the country’s underground water reservoirs. AMW is diluted with clean water to minimise its environmental effect, but this cannot continue indefinitely in the face of water shortages. Municipalities are arguably our biggest polluters, dumping 4 000Ml of untreated or partially treated sewage into our rivers and dams daily.

Even if government does find the means to remedy our water quality situation, it will be years before it has an effect. So, while farmers are concerned about where their water will come from, they should also start thinking about how they will cope with increasingly polluted water sources.