Bids to clean up SA’s filthy rivers exposes tip of the iceberg

Water pollution holds a serious global threat to our fresh water, rivers and oceans.

Water pollution holds a serious global threat to our fresh water, rivers and oceans. In South Africa, the failure of a large proportion of our wastewater treatment plants has placed our rivers and waterways at great risk, where close to four billion litres of untreated or partially treated sewage enters into the country’s dams and rivers every day.

Human sewage is only one of the problems the nation faces. In areas where there are no sewage treatment plants, raw sewage is pumped into the ocean. Marine outfall pipes extend deep into the sea. Environmentalists have issued dire warnings over the years concerning the long-term consequences and the threat to our marine systems.

Wastewater discharged into rivers
In developing countries, it is estimated that 90% of wastewater is discharged into rivers and streams without treatment. Aletta Harrison of Eyewitness News quotes Professor Leslie Petrik from the University of the Western Cape’s Chemistry Department: “What is going out into the ocean is essentially a mixture of sewage waste, as well as every chemical that you use in the household for medicinal or cleaning purposes. These other compounds are far more dangerous than the actual sewage, because the sewage will still probably decompose, but many of these other compounds are very persistent and accumulate within the environment. Once they’re released you can’t recall them.” Poorly functioning wastewater treatment plants are spewing nearly four million litres of untreated or partially treated sewage into the country’s dams and rivers every day. This is according to an Institute of Race Relations report written by water expert Dr Anthony Turton in November 2015, entitled Sitting on the horns of a dilemma: water as a strategic resource in South Africa.

Plumbing Africa covered the topic of ocean trash vortexes in its September edition.

Industry as a source of water pollution
Industry is a major source of water pollution, and toxic effluent is pumped into nearby water sources, ending up in dams and oceans. Factories and oil refineries; pulp and paper mills; chemical, electronics, and automobile manufacturers all contribute to polluting the environment.

Gold mines use cyanide to extract gold chemically, which ends up in rivers. Coal mining contaminates groundwater, rivers and the ocean with toxic pollutants. Despite this, coal is still relatively cheap and there is enough of it to be used for decades to come. Research has shown that exposure to these dangerous chemicals can lead to birth defects, cancer, and even death. This industry also uses enormous amounts of water.

Factory farming uses staggering amounts of manure that produces dangerous microbes, nitrates, and drug-resistant bacteria. It also emits toxic gases such as hydrogen, ammonia, sulphide, and methane. Run-off from streets into stormwater systems collects chemicals, pollutants, engine oils and many others on their way to flowing into rivers and out to sea.

Plastic pollutes our oceans and rivers; therefore, each piece of plastic that is recycled means one less piece to pollute oceans and kill marine life. Unfortunately, urban lifestyles exact a heavy price: the items on retailers’ shelves and demand for them are the biggest contributing factor to global pollution.

South Africa has several pollution regulation and environmental acts in place, but these have come under serious attack by the major industrial polluters.
The Mercury reported on a study conducted by the Water Research Commission in 2013, which indicated that the Umgeni River was one of the dirtiest rivers in South Africa and showed signs of cholera, shigella, salmonella, and other harmful viruses and bacteria at sampling point between the Inanda Dam and Blue Lagoon in Durban.

The study of water samples showed that these viruses could infect people throughout the year, through drinking or cooking with untreated water, irrigating food crops from the river, washing clothes, and swimming or playing in the Umgeni River.

Deaths related to unclean water
While conservation is often seen as ‘indulgences for the well-to-do’, the study’s researchers say that nearly 2.5% of all deaths in South Africa are related to unclean water, poor sanitation or hygiene, and that 50% of acute gastrointestinal sickness is suspected to be caused by viral infection. A total of 395 people died and more than 120 000 became sick in the cholera epidemic in South Africa between 2000 and 2003.

The researchers say that to cut costs, most routine testing of South African river water quality is restricted to looking for E. coli and other sewage bacteria that are easy to detect, whereas it is almost impossible to test regularly for up to 100 viruses coming from human faeces.

In this study, however, the researchers did one of the first comprehensive studies on human disease-causing germs and viruses in the Umgeni River. It was based on samples taken throughout the seasons at Blue Lagoon, Reservoir Hills, New Germany wastewater works, Krantzkloof Nature Reserve, and Inanda Dam. Every sampling point failed to meet water quality targets for drinking or recreation, with the most bacterially polluted water found at the mouth of the Umgeni River and next to an informal settlement in Reservoir Hills.

Cholera, salmonella and shigella
They also found cholera, salmonella and shigella pathogens at every sampling point, along with adenoviruses, enteroviruses, rotaviruses and hepatitis B viruses. “These results strongly indicate the potential of viruses (especially from the lower catchment areas) to infect human hosts throughout the year. These observations may have serious health care implications.

“Although river water is never managed to achieve drinking water quality, the results would also raise concerns for those who consume water directly from the river without any form of treatment.” The results also suggested that the Umgeni River should be tested more frequently to monitor actual virus levels, rather than simply monitoring E. coli and other easily detectable sewage bacteria.

Though they do not pinpoint the exact pollution sources, the researchers suggest that the most likely sources of the viruses and bacteria in the Umgeni River are inadequate municipal sewage treatment and run-off from informal houses close to the river.

“In such areas (in many parts of the country) no wastewater treatment is provided and raw sewage enters the rivers and streams directly. Because of lack of infrastructure in these settlements, the residents are often forced to inhabit riverbanks. People living in these areas often utilise the contaminated surface water for crop irrigation, recreation, and domestic personal use such as washing, drinking, and cooking without prior treatment.”

In their background comments, the researchers say that viruses, bacteria, parasites, and toxins can cause diarrhoea, but it was only during the past two decades that viruses had been firmly established as a cause of acute gastroenteritis.

Although many rivers have yet to be studied intensively, research suggests that the Umgeni River is among the most heavily contaminated, along with the Vaal, Crocodile and Olifants rivers.

The 230km Umgeni River was chosen for the study because it is the primary source of water for more than 3.5 million people living in an area that generates almost 65% of the provincial gross domestic product.

The need for water security — particularly in the face of global climate change and a multitude of effects human activities have on our environment and our rivers — calls for a national and unified approach to protect our waterways, wetlands and broader catchments, such that all people can benefit from healthy rivers and have access to clean water. It is for this reason that the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) would like to connect South Africans to their sources of water and to the natural infrastructure that is crucial for a water secure future.

Acid mine drainage
Acid mine drainage on the Witwatersrand has been publicised in the media as having reached a crisis point. According to a Business Day article published in May 2016, to treat the polluted water that emanates from mines in the Witwatersrand Basin (the source of about a third of all the world’s gold), would cost as much as R12-billion. Companies will pay the bulk of the expense through an environmental levy, Water Affairs and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane said then.

Ratepayers of Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, and Mogale City might have to pay a big part of the bill for countering water pollution caused by acid run-offs from old mines, which is a funding option being considered by the DWS, the media reported. As can be expected, wanting a relatively small base of ratepayers shouldering the cost of what large mining companies caused up to 100 years ago has not been well received.

Mandela Day clean up
The DWS called for the clean-up as part of Mandela Month 2016, when South Africans were called on to dedicate 67 minutes to clean South Africa.

Through a combined effort, communities, officials from regional and national offices, the private sector, and other sectors of society dedicated time to cleaning the rivers. Some of the rivers cleaned include the Ngwanele River, Kuils River, Luvuvhu River, Siza River, Qumbu River, Molopo River, Orange River, and the Moreleta River. During Mandela Day celebrations, Minister Mokonyane cleaned the Jukskei River in Alexandra, while Deputy Minister Pamela Tshwete paid tribute to former President Nelson Mandela by dedicating time to cleaning the Mzingwenya River in eSikhawini, KwaZulu-Natal.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (one of the world’s largest and most respected independent conservation organisations with almost six million supporters and a global network active in more than 100 countries), the Strategic Water Partnership Network, as well as the National Business Initiative with an affiliation of hundreds of South African corporates, are the official partners to the DWS in the Clear Rivers Campaign. The campaign took place in July 2016 and is associated with volunteerism promoted during July, as part of Mandela Month activities. The Clear Rivers Campaign is driving a campaign to clean rivers of pollution. The goal of the campaign is to foster communities that are involved and engaged in managing South Africa’s water resources, and to educate these communities to be more water savvy and environmentally conscious.

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