An alarming insert on the television programme Carte Blanche last night highlighted the shocking water crisis South Africa is facing. The gravity of the programme has been echoed on the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which warned that we may be focusing too much on the current cholera crisis and "overlooking a creeping water crisis… as ageing infrastructure and rising demand spew potentially deadly bacteria into its water systems".
According to one water policy expert Carte Blanche interviewed, Dr Anthony Turton, we've "reached the limit of our readily available supply". He warned that many of our rivers and dams are dying or under threat from blue-green algae, caused by too many phosphates and nitrates in the water, which eventually leads to eutrophication.
Health effects of blue green algae
It may not be that nice to look at, but the dangers of blue green algae are even less attractive and can produce a wide range of toxins, each of which has specific properties.
The toxins are commonly grouped according to their mode of action include:
- Hepatotoxins: can cause damage to the liver;
- Neurotoxins: can cause adverse effects to the nervous system; and
- Irritants/inflammatory agents: can cause skin rashes, eye irritation and gastroenteritis.
The toxic effects of blue green algae can occur following ingestion or contact with affected water and symptoms, which vary according to the type and number of blue green algae present, commonly include skin rashes, eye irritation, stomach upsets and flu-like symptoms.
'Time to panic is now'
Carte Blanche also spoke to Professor Mike Muller, public and development manager at the University of the Witwatersrand, who said: "If you look at the electricity crisis, the reason we had a month of blackouts was because five years before some decisions were taken that were wrong and some decisions weren't taken; and what I am saying is that in the water sector we have similar lead times. If you're not always looking ahead for the next four or five years, the chances are that by the time you need to do something, it's too late, and then you will be in crisis. So I am saying panic at the right time and the right time is probably now."
However, the official word from the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) is that there really isn't any need to panic. DWAF minister Lindiwe Hendricks, although she admitted SA may run out of water, denied that there was any "impending crisis, as far as the security of supply is concerned".
Either way, the more immediate worry is the quality of the water with which we're currently being supplied. According to the UN website, local wildlife is also struggling to cope with the environmental impact.
"Recently, court-ordered contractors removed 20 tonnes of dead fish after a local NGO, Save the Vaal River Environment (Save), took the local Emfuleni municipality to court for leaking millions of litres of raw sewage into the river. Save said the pollution had contributed to stomach and intestinal disorders among nearby residents," they said.
Worms, sewage in water
While some water suppliers in the country, like Rand Water, are still producing clean water, there are several areas where the quality is well below the standards considered safe for human consumption.
Some of the municipalities Carte Blanche mentioned in their report included the Matjhabeng municipality, which runs Welkom and Odendalsrus. Here, farmers claim sewage gets dumped in the river, making it dangerous to water their crops with or feed to their livestock.
At the Rietvlei Nature Reserve, scientists claimed they had found pesticides, hormones and heavy metals in the water. A study done on the reserve's water also revealed cancer risks if the water was used for irrigation.
Most shocking of all was a report by Dr Jo Barnes of the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Stellenbosch, who told Carte Blanche she had found "a full range of pathogens in river water that many bacteria, skin diseases, respiratory diseases, kidney diseases, ear infections... organisms for all of those and of course the whole family of diarrhoeas. So this is not at all ideal water to irrigate on edible produce."
With 2010 just around the corner and millions of tourists set to descend on our shores, one wonders whether the projected figures for our water supply will hold firm and whether the water will be safe enough for them to consume.
Sources: Carte Blanche, www.carteblanche.co.za; IRIN News, www.irinnews.org; www.health.sa.gov.au.
(Amy Henderson, Health24, February 2009)