Using water responsibly

2009-04-14 00:00

RECENTLY, there was a furore when the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) water scientist Dr Anthony Turton was prevented from delivering a keynote address on the challenges facing national water management to a CSIR conference.

Misguided attempts to shoot the messenger detracted from the dire warning contained in his message. Turton pointed out that the country’s entire water supply is now taken up with supplying industries, municipalities and agriculture. That means that there is no ecological reserve left in water courses in order that rivers continue to be able to support their natural processes. Over-abstraction means that not only are there insufficient flows to dilute pollutants, but this also leads to eutrophication (high nutrient levels leading to algal blooms and deoxygenated water) of rivers and dams.

Turton also pointed out the uncomfortable fact that another contributing factor to water pollution is the poor maintenance of water treatment and sewage works. One needs to look no further than the cholera outbreak at Delmas to see the dire consequences of this.

So what is to be done?

Demand from Durban and Pietermaritzburg is putting so much pressure on water resources that alternative sources need to be found to pre-empt shortages.

Umgeni Water, the bulk water supplier for the region, is investigating ways to save water. The obvious one is the recycling of waste water. While some might react with horror to the idea of drinking recycled sewage, in Europe this is standard practice. It is said that the glass of water which you drink out of the tap in London has already been through nine people.

While there should be nothing in principle against recycling waste water, there are two practical reservations. Such has been the loss of skills in the past 15 years — which has affected the water industry as much as the civil service — that before it buys in to the concept, the public will need to be reassured on the absolute integrity of the treatment processes, as well as the qualifications and capabilities of the officials who will be operating the treatment plants.

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