Water crisis

2008-12-01 00:00

It is approaching a year since the electricity crisis hit this country. Fortunately, it seems that the experience brought home to the powers-that-be that where an essential resource is in very short supply, effective management is crucially important. Better management at Eskom has husbanded the supply and bought a little more time to increase the generating capacity. Meanwhile, a second problem has been heading for a crisis and, in this case, the option of increasing capacity does not exist.

Southern Africa has always been short of water, and climate change together with increasing demand threatens to worsen the situation. While there may be other sources of heat and light and various ways to generate electricity, there is no alternative to water nor any means to generate large volumes of it. What nature provides is all that there is, and life is wholly dependent on it.

The crisis now developing is that people, from the wealthiest mining magnates to the poorest shack dwellers, have been abusing the country’s already scant supplies. While the degradation of catchment areas continues, acid drainage from disused mines is leaking toxic water into inland rivers, and other industrial effluent, together with raw or inadequately treated sewage, is polluting waterways everywhere. The direct danger to life, human and animal, is made obvious by dead fish in the streams and it has been reported that the irrigation of crops with polluted water is threatening agricultural production and exports.

If solutions are to be found, as they absolutely must be, the problem has to be confronted head on, yet in the midst of all this the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has responded to a hard-hitting report by water researcher Anthony Turton by blocking its presentation and suspending the presenter. This is the very opposite of what is needed. As with power, effective management that takes all options into balanced account is essential. Turton may be wrong, but his findings need to be examined and debated, not simply stonewalled.

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