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Toxic rivers are poisoning the fruits of democracy

But government and local authorities don’t have the stomach to resolve it.
Local retailers no longer source produce from certain farms because of toxins in the rivers they draw their irrigation from. Picture: Shutterstock

The incapacity of government to fulfill its basic mandate of effectively protecting the rights and property of all persons (natural and juridical), thereby ruining economic growth, is matched by its dedicated neglect of scarce natural resources. In a water-scarce country like South Africa, this amounts to much more than an ecological disaster: it borders on economic suicide. Like people, no enterprise can thrive without access to reliable water.

South Africa remains in a far better position than most African countries, but not every middle-income country can boast that its government has systematically:

– Undermined its own water resources by extending the poor ecological condition of its main rivers by an astounding 500% within just 12 years (1999–2011), with some rivers pushed beyond the point of recovery (March 2018 Draft National Water and Sanitation Master Plan);

– Allowed dysfunctional municipalities to discharge about 4.3 billion litres of raw or poorly-treated sewage into rivers and dams daily, according to South African water expert Dr Anthony Turton;

– Delayed the publication of its Blue Drop and Green Drop monitoring reports to hide the slide into dysfunctional status from the public eye, rather than applying a hard date to act against the perpetrators who spill the sewage;

– Through the above neglect, government has compromised and undermined the viability of several irrigation farmers, with some fresh-produce products from polluted areas already on the do-not-procure lists of local supermarkets. It has also given first-world countries (such as EU members) all the arguments they need to place a ban on several of SA’s fresh produce exports.

Lucrative exports under threat

The actions and inertia of municipalities aren’t just fuelling unrest, protest and vandalism – they’re undermining investment, and thereby growth and poverty alleviation, and threatening some of the most lucrative exports from South Africa. Fresh fruit and vegetables and processed fruit and vegetable products may be banned from EU and possibly other markets.

“Wine and fruit exporters have to comply with stringent international food safety certifications,” says Inge Kotze, senior manager for Sustainable Agriculture at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). She cites initiatives such as the GlobalGAP and Leaf farm assurance systems, as well as British retailer Tesco’s Nurture accredited farming standard, all of which include strictly-monitored food health and safety, social and environmental regulations.

“If these certifiers carry out tests in an area and find E.coli in the water because sewerage is not properly managed or because raw sewage is flowing into the rivers, it directly threatens the export market,” she says. “At the same time, it threatens the health of the people living in this region and it threatens the sustainability of the water supply.”

Some of South Africa’s big distributors of fresh horticultural produce have stopped procuring certain products from farms irrigated with water from the Hartbeespoort Dam. “Outlets like Woolies are becoming concerned and no longer source leafy greens from places irrigated out of Harties,” says Turton. The issue, he adds, is the transmission of Microcystin LR, with the toxic element BMAA (a neurotoxin). 

Vaal River becoming SA’s ‘greatest sewer’

While pollution through mining and industrial activity was severe in the old South Africa, the radical transformation of the Vaal River into the South African Cloaca Maxima (‘greatest sewer’) by discharging raw sewage adds momentum to the situation.

Rivers severely affected by raw and poorly-treated sewage include the Crocodile, Vaal, Klip, Hennops and Jukskei rivers in Gauteng, the Vaal and Harts rivers in the Northwest Province, the Dusi and both the upper and lower Tugela in KwaZulu-Natal, and the Mthatha and Fish rivers in the Eastern Cape. Raw sewage from Deneysville flows into the Vaal Dam and Senekal’s untreated sewage spills into Allemanskraaldam.

In some rivers, the problems are aggravated due to upstream extractions (for urban and irrigation use) resulting in decreased flows. Simultaneously, the addition of nutrient-enriched sewage often exceeds the flows caused by rainfall.

In addition to an ecological disaster, this:

– Drives up costs for water treatment works that draw raw water supply from polluted rivers;

– Undermines tourism in rural areas since freshwater fishing, water-skiing, rafting and kayaking in polluted waters is unpleasant – and dangerous; and

– Threatens the sustainability and livelihoods of all settlements and irrigation farmers downstream from the Vaal Dam, resulting in a drop in exports and a deterioration of the overall economy.

The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) is tasked with ensuring the provision of bulk water. This can only be achieved by protecting the integrity of South Africa’s rivers and ensuring that sufficient storage and/or transfer capacities are in place.

Gross neglect

DWS is damaging the economy on two fronts:

– It neglected to ensure in-time bulk water supply to Cape Town, despite it being one of the fastest growing metropoles in the country. These restrictions had negative impacts on small enterprises in particular. The shenanigans of then-minister Nomvula Mokonyane, who left the DWS in a “bankrupt and dysfunctional” state (according to her successor and current cabinet colleague, Gugile Nkwinti), also delayed the raising of the Clanwilliam Dam for several years by sidelining the DWS internal construction unit and searching for BEE contractors. These delays deprived vegetable, fruit and grape producers along the Olifants River from planned expansion of irrigated areas, and from having some water available during the drought. Both urban and rural enterprises have been restricted through this incapacity.

– Through gross neglect of its duty to ensure the integrity of our river systems, the spillage of raw human excrement and industrial waste into our rivers has increased dramatically – with implications for irrigation. 

‘Brown Drop’ status would be more accurate

DWS is also responsible for monitoring the quality of treated wastewater before releasing it into rivers. It is in this context that the Blue Drop and Green Drop reports are crucial. Yet from 2012, the updated reports weren’t released. This continued for more than four years. The 2014 reports, which weren’t released until January 2017, recorded a 55% decline in the number of water supply systems receiving Blue Drop status. Despite this, deputy director-general Anil Singh said there was no reason for alarm: “The drinking water we have in South Africa is amongst the best in the world.”

With the deterioration of river content, the purification of potable water to acceptable levels becomes increasingly problematic both technically and financially. Based on what DWS acknowledges in its draft Master Plan, it is clear that ‘Brown Drop’ would be more accurate than Green Drop status.

Turton warns that the DWS has compromised South Africa’s future by neglecting its oversight role, resulting in government being the largest polluter of water. “South Africa has polluted its natural water resource to such an extent that it now faces a crisis of induced scarcity.”

This is another classic example of a national department failing its primary function with a disastrous impact not only on public sector finances but on the real economy; harming producers and becoming an export risk. There is little if any awareness that the economy is like a woven tapestry – plucking a loose fibre at one end can distort the scene elsewhere and even lead to the unravelling of the tapestry in its entirety. 

Engineers replaced by technicians referred to as engineers

It is unlikely that either the DWS – having lost the vast majority of its engineers, replacing them with technicians who are referred to as engineers – or dysfunctional local authorities will be able to perform to the required norms of water quality.

A way to turn matters around would be for DWS and Treasury to make water purification and wastewater treatment plant franchises available. DWS would get better value for money than it does by subsidising local authorities. Franchisees could earn income according to the volumes that comply with health and safety standards and indicators.

This approach may upset the state-led development praise singers, but believing that the state has the capacity and integrity to turn matters around is akin to relying on a rain-dancer to meet the growing water demand of Gauteng.

Johannes Wessels is director of the Enterprise Observatory of SA (EOSA). This [edited] article was published with permission from EOSA. The original can be viewed here.


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