How healthy is our water?

2009-04-13 00:00

South Africa has one of the most progressive water regulatory regimes in the world, based upon the constitutional right of access to sufficient food and water for all. This right is being realised by the government policy of supplying free water of 6 000 litres a month to all households in South Africa.

A court ruling against prepaid water meters by Judge Moroa Tsoka stated: “Water is life, sanitation is dignity — this case is about the fundamental right to have access to sufficient water and the right to human dignity.”

The recent furore around the case of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) water scientist Dr Anthony Turton, who was prevented from making a keynote address on challenges facing national water management at a CSIR conference, highlighted this crisis. But what was perhaps most notable was not the photographs of xenophobic violence that were cited as the reason for the withdrawal of the paper, but what Turton actually said. Unfortunately his important contribution to the national debate was lost among the noise.

Turton warns that our entire water supply is effectively spoken for through supplying industry, municipalities and agriculture. Farming activities alone account for more than half of our entire water resources. Excessive extraction of water from rivers and dams creates serious environmental stresses because insufficient flows are unable to dilute pollutants. This in turn leads to eutrophication (high nutrient levels, leading to algal blooms and deoxygenated water) of rivers and dams, which can often lead to the accumulation of toxic algae. Eutrophication places additional loads on water treatment plants, making water purification more difficult and hence expensive.

Pollution from mines results in radioactive elements, chemical pollutants, heavy metal contaminants and acid build-up to the degree that the health of entire river systems has been endangered.

The problem of over-abstraction from rivers and dams, coupled with pollution, has rendered largely academic the stipulation in our progressive National Water Act that an ecological reserve must remain in watercourses in order that rivers continue to be able to support their natural processes.

Another major contributing cause to pollution of water is the poor maintenance of water treatment and sewage works. In many cases municipalities use water from the same sources to which treated sewage has been returned. This becomes a serious problem if either the sewage works or the drinking water treatment plants are not operating optimally. This has occurred in numerous small municipalities, rendering water unsafe to drink.

Dr Turton identified three major drivers to the problems facing us that we must grasp if we are to manage our water resources sustainably.

The first is dilution. If we remove too much water from rivers, this, coupled with high evaporation rates and low annual rainfall, means that pollutants will not become sufficiently diluted. Therefore the ecological reserve — the amount of water to maintain the ecological health of the river — is insufficient.

Second is how our country has developed. For instance, Johannesburg lies upon a watershed and not in a river basin. Consequently, there is insufficient water for its needs. Water therefore has to be brought in, usually from other river basins. The impacts are therefore transferred to distant communities and ecosystems.

Thirdly, poor communities have historically been located in the most water-stressed and environmentally degraded areas. Soweto’s location among mine detritus, leaching chemicals and radionucleotides has serious implications for its residents.

In order to solve these problems, Turton poses three major strategic challenges. Firstly, we must address the fundamental issue of ecological sustainability. We need to balance the ecological river reserve more accurately against social and economic needs, so that the impacts of mine drainage, eutrophication and water pollution are diminished and managed. There is an intimate connection between the ecological health of a river and the social benefits it is capable of providing.

The next challenge is to deal with how water influences our national quest for human health, a critical issue in light of HIV and Aids. Clean, healthy water is vital to avoid opportunistic infections and even serious disease outbreaks such as cholera, as occurred this year. The risks from radiation and heavy metals liberated by mining must be quantified and dealt with. Equally, we need to deal with man-made chemicals, notably hormone-disrupting chemicals and pharmaceutical products which are increasingly being concentrated in watercourses through the reintroduction of treated wastewater to rivers.

Finally, we must deal with the challenges raised by climate change. Warmer climates and associated altered weather patterns threaten the health of rivers and people by — for example — increasing the potential of toxic algal blooms. A useful response to this would be to reactivate the moribund National Eutrophication Programme that collapsed around two decades ago, in order that research can be conducted to solve or ameliorate this threat. Climate change also stands to influence further the dilution effect within watercourses, increasing pollutant concentrations, nutrients and the likelihood of accelerated eutrophication. This in turn threatens the ecological viability of our aquatic systems such as has already happened in Hartebeespoort and Roodeplaat dams, where pollutant loads have resulted in hyper-eutrophication, known as hypertrophy.

South African water policy is progressive and well structured. By and large our major urban areas provide adequate quality water. Yet the future appears bleak if we do not deal with these problems. Bryan Davies and Jenny Day’s seminal book Vanishing Waters outlines clearly how we are running out of capacity to supply water to our nation. We are already at the limit.

The first 15 years of democracy concentrated on supplying water to the previously dispossessed majority, both for drinking and sanitation. However, we have failed to address adequately the challenges we face in maintaining our water infrastructure and in properly supporting important research organisations like the CSIR. The South African Water Research Commission has done great research work, but more concrete action is urgently required.

The incoming government must focus on the challenges related to the health of our national water systems. We have simply run out of time to act in these matters. The work of the Department of Water Affairs must be prioritised. After all, water is life, not only for people but also for the entire network of ecosystems that enable us to survive, and hopefully prosper, in this arid and water-stressed land we call home.

• Glenn Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at This article was distributed by the South African Civil Society Information Service (

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