Anthea Jeffery: “Induced” water shortage threatens growth, development & health

The water shortages are having an affect on all South Africa citizens and on Biznews yesterday we got Anthony Turton’s take on the situation. His conclusion is that as much as the drought is a cause for concern, the actual water shortages are ‘induced’ due to a skills shortage and ineffective water waste management systems. In the article below the Institute of Race Relations’ Anthea Jeffery takes the discussion a step further. She says the drought will slow economic growth, threaten future development and is a public health concern. – Stuart Lowman

By Anthea Jeffery*

Dr. Anthea Jeffery is Head of Policy Research at the IRR and author of Patents and Prosperity: Invention + Investment = Growth + Jobs, published this week by the IRR and available on the IRR website.
Dr. Anthea Jeffery is Head of Policy Research at the IRR.

In the 1980s, as water expert Anthony Turton has recently written in @Liberty, the policy bulletin of the IRR (Institute of Race Relations), South Africa was a global leader in water management.

The country became recognised around the world for its ability to achieve economic growth and development despite its fundamental water constraint, which was largely overcome through high levels of technical ingenuity.

Since 1994, however, much of this technical expertise has been jettisoned, along with the hard-earned wisdom and institutional memory accumulated over three decades.

Instead, the ruling party’s ideologically-driven emphasis on transformation has seen highly qualified specialists – ranging from engineers to microbiologists and ecologists – put under great pressure to leave well before retirement age. Many have succumbed to the pressure and resigned, while their replacements, as Turton notes, have “rarely had the same qualifications and experience”.

According to Turton, South Africa is now suffering from an “induced” deficit of engineering and other technical skills, and especially so at municipal level. This shortage can be traced directly to the Government’s determined pursuit of narrowly defined racial targets at the expense of broader issues such as service delivery and economic growth. Were it not for this factor, the engineering skills available would suffice to meet present needs. Hence, if the Government were willing to de-racialise the appointment of technical skills, the current shortage would be overcome.

Read also: Anthony Turton: Water crisis avoidable. Skills shortages, poor waste management.

Instead, this “induced” skills deficit is contributing to an “induced” water shortage that now threatens future development and economic growth, along with public health. Much of the problem here can be traced back to hundreds of poorly functioning municipal wastewater treatment works across the country.

Writes Turton: “These 824 plants receive some 4,900 million litres per day (Ml/d) of sewage flows… Of this total daily flow, only 1 259 Ml/d (26%) is treated to satisfactory standards before being discharged back into rivers. The remainder – a staggering 3 642 Ml/d – is returned to the country’s rivers as partially treated or untreated sewage.”

A farm worker sits on a water tank as he supplies his livestock with water at a farm outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, November 8, 2015. Cattle are the traditional asset by which Nampie Motloung, a subsistence black South African farmer, has long measured his wealth. But a blistering drought has made them a liability. Picture taken November 8, 2015. To match SAFRICA-DROUGHT/ REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
A farm worker sits on a water tank as he supplies his livestock with water at a farm outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, November 8, 2015. Cattle are the traditional asset by which Nampie Motloung, a subsistence black South African farmer, has long measured his wealth. But a blistering drought has made them a liability. Picture taken November 8, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Moreover, as Turton warns, just as a small volume of oil destroys the quality of a large volume of water, so a small source of persistent sewage has essentially the same effect. Hence, the close on 4 billion litres of poorly treated sewage being discharged every day are destroying a far greater volume of potentially useable water.

Adds Turton: “Relevant too is the fact that the discharge of inadequately treated sewage effluent from even a single wastewater treatment plant overloads the bulk water treatment plant which is supposed to produce potable water for immediate downstream users.

“This is a problem particularly affecting the Olifants River in Mpumalanga, in its passage from eMalahleni (Witbank) to the Kruger National Park. There are six water supply loops in the area, all of which source drinking water from a river heavily contaminated by sewage. Effectively, this means that the water flowing in the Olifants River passes through at least six people (or six sets of alimentary canals and kidneys) before it reaches Mozambique.

“Much the same can be said of all the major river basins in South Africa. In addition, there are very few potable water treatment works in the country which are able to source their bulk water from rivers uncontaminated by sewage.

“The general public remains largely ignorant of the fact that almost all potable water in South Africa is sourced downstream of dysfunctional sewage plants and treated by a bulk water plant that is not designed for this purpose.”

Read also: Drought bites – SA Water Minister warns without rain soon, rationing starts

The water crisis in the country thus goes far beyond the current drought. As Turton puts it, “South Africa has polluted its national water resource to such an extent that it now faces a crisis of induced scarcity which could have been avoided”.

The inadequately treated sewage being discharged every day is also now driving the eutrophication of all major dams. Eutrophic water is characterised by the presence of high levels of nutrients, which in turn promote the growth of cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae.

One very common species of cyanobacteria produces a potent toxin known as microcystin. This is chemically similar to cobra venom. It is also carcinogenic (cancer-producing) and damages the liver and central nervous system.

Warns Turton: “The microcystin levels found in a number of major dams – including Hartbeespoort, Hazelmere, Midmar and the Vaal Dam – are amongst the highest ever measured in the world. Microcystin toxin levels become a concern in developed countries at three orders of magnitude below the levels commonly found in South Africa.

“Still more worrying is the fact that none of South Africa’s 1 085 water supply systems have the capacity to remove microcystin. There are only two known technologies capable of neutralising microcystin (advanced oxidisation processes and activated carbon), but these are not in mainstream use in any of the bulk potable water treatment plants in the country. In addition, no one knows whether these technologies are in fact capable of neutralising microcystin at the concentrations found in South Africa. In this regard, we are truly flying blind.”

Read also: ‘El Nino’, industrialisation collide – Africa runs dry

The current drought is likely to make the situation worse. River and dam levels will decline, but sewage flows are likely to remain much the same, which means the ratio of sewage effluent to the volume of each receiving water body will increase. At the same time, high summer temperatures, unmitigated by cooling rainfall, could stimulate “an exponential growth” in toxic cyanobacteria.

Many commentators have been blaming the Government for not foreseeing the current drought and doing more to prepare for it. However, the extent of water contamination across the country is a problem rarely acknowledged and far more severe.

Warns Turton: “If current transformation policies continue to take precedence, we can anticipate a further deterioration in the operation of wastewater treatment plants. This in turn is likely to generate a growing burden of disease, especially in poor communities, and an escalating cost for the treatment of potable water from sources contaminated by sewage flows.”

However, the Government seems impervious to these concerns. As Turton puts it:  “The level of politicisation has become so high that decision-making on water management is no longer rooted in hydrological realities. Ideology is regarded as paramount, while reality counts only as a secondary factor.”

* Dr Anthea Jeffery is the Head of Policy Research at the IRR. This article is based on an analysis by Anthony Turton, which was published this week in @Liberty, the IRR’s policy journal, with support from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

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