OPINION | Janet Simpkins: If we protect our water, we protect our future

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South Africa's rivers are a vital cog in the ecosystem, providing water for drinking and irrigating crops. We cannot allow them to deteriorate and collapse, writes Janet Simpkins.

Take a tomato and mustard sauce-stained hamburger wrapping that has been lying in the filthy gutter for several days. Crumple it up and put it in a glass. Fill that glass with water. Now drink it. Disgusting, isn't it?

So why are we doing the same thing – and worse - to our scarce and precious water resources? We dump raw sewage into rivers and extract the same water; we hurl rubbish out of our car windows which ends up in stormwater drains that feed into rivers and the sea; not to mention the amount of illegal dumpsites raging out of control across towns and cities, we use harmful chemicals, throw paint and oils into our household drains which goes straight to overstrained water treatment plants.

Industrial spills 

With the current focus on climate, and the COP26 climate conference recently held in Glasgow, Scotland, it is worth giving some thought on how we treat our water – arguably the most important natural resource that we have.

In KwaZulu-Natal alone there have been some shocking industrial spills that have sent shockwaves reverberating through the ecosystems and making it incredibly hard to fight back to restore the natural environment. Two recent examples illustrate how we treat our water resources on a large scale. In 2020, oil leaked from a Transnet pipeline into the Umbilo River, through local communities and a nature reserve, and ultimately into the Durban Harbour. In July 2021, during the unrest and looting near Durban, the UPL Cornubia chemicals plant was torched, resulting in a vast quantity of toxic chemicals leaking into the sea, just north of Durban. Earlier, in 2019, a spill of 1.6 million litres of vegetable oil and caustic soda from Willowton Oils in Pietermaritzburg into the Msunduzi river caused irreparable damage to the river ecosystem.

Perhaps we believe that once water is filtered and sent through a tap the problem of pollution is solved. If that was ever the case, it is certainly not true now.

READ | Opinion: Dario Soto-Abril and Johannes Cullman: The world must act now to avoid a water crisis

The last "Blue Drop" report by the Department of Water and Sanitation on the quality of water from SA's taps was published in 2014. The discontinuation is widely suspected to reflect a situation too disastrous to document. According to the department's own "National Water and Sanitation Master Plan Volume 1", published in 2019, SA is facing a water crisis resulting from insufficient maintenance and investment in infrastructure, recurrent drought, deteriorating water quality and a shortage of skilled engineers. The report said over half of SA's 1 150 municipal wastewater treatment works (WWTW) and about 44% of the 962 water treatment works were in a poor or critical condition. About 11% of this infrastructure was "completely dysfunctional". The widespread and national failure of pumpstations and WWTW around the country is evident in the sheer number of polluted streams, dams, rivers and wetlands we are experiencing.

"Between 1999 and 2011, the extent of main rivers in SA classified as having a poor ecological condition increased by 500%, with some rivers pushed beyond the point of recovery," the report said.

Vital cog 

South Africa's rivers are a vital cog in the ecosystem, providing water for drinking and irrigating crops. We cannot allow them to deteriorate and collapse. It is worth spending a few minutes considering what this gradual deterioration is costing us, not only through a dirty, unattractive environment and higher cleanup costs, but also in our personal health.

According to Ocean Conservancy, which organises the annual International Coastal Cleanup Day, between 24 and 35 metric tonnes of plastics entered global aquatic systems in 2020 and about 60% of fish studied globally contained microplastics.

Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic that end up in the environment when consumer and industrial plastics break down. In 2020, they were found in human placentas for the first time. They are literally filtering into every aspect of the food chain.

READ | Opinion: Lethabo Pholoto: Why circular cities will help in the battle with plastics, climate change

On 18 September, Adopt-A-River, together with other organisations arranged an ocean cleanup at the uMngeni River Mouth to coincide with International Coastal Cleanup Day. There is a steady stream of plastic waste throughout the year. With the help of sponsorship, Adopt-A-River cleans the uMngeni River Mouth and nearby area regularly, taking out about 1 000 bags of rubbish a month. On that single day, 156 volunteers collected over 1.2 tonnes of rubbish, mainly plastic in just two hours! So imagine how much worse the situation is when multiplied by 365 days a year across all of South Africa's major rivers. Solving this crisis will require a lot of money and effort.

Legislation needs to change and big corporates need to start being held accountable for the waste they produce seriously. It may seem overwhelming to the everyday citizen. But one of the steps within everyone's power is to start to treat our rivers and oceans with more respect.

Changing habits at home 

We can all help to clean up our rivers and oceans. It only involves changing some of our habits at home. Remember that harsh chemicals washed down your sinks and drains will have to be treated with more chemicals at the wastewater treatment works. Wherever possible, avoid using plastic bags. Fruit and vegetables do not need to be wrapped in single-use plastic. Separate your waste and ensure that recyclable items reach a reputable recycler. Take part in clean-ups in your area or, if time is short, make donations to causes that support a cleaner environment. Amid this year's COP 26 conference, Lewis Pugh, the endurance swimmer who has dedicated himself to a campaign to clean up the world's oceans, tweeted: "for most of history, we have had to fight nature to survive. To survive, we must now protect nature."

- Janet Simpkins is the Director of Adopt-a-River, a registered non-profit working in the river and environmental space. Based mainly in KZN, Adopt-a-River focus on community-based solutions to river health issues.

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