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South Africa’s sewage pollution crisis is impacting our food safety

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Dr Ferrial Adam has worked for various organisations, including Earthlife Africa and Greenpeace Africa. She has served as chairperson of the board of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa). Dr Adam completed her PhD in Citizen Science and Environmental Justice in SA’s Water Sector. She is manager of WaterCAN, an initiative of Outa.

Given that more than 60% of the country’s wastewater treatment works are in a poor to critical state, it must be assumed that much of this contamination is ending up in our fresh water and affecting our food.

The 2022 theme for World Toilet Day on 19 November is “making the invisible visible” as the focus is on sewage spills into groundwater. In South Africa, sewage pollution is anything but invisible and in the past year, much has been said and written about it.

Since 2013, the United Nations observes World Toilet Day each year as a campaign for ensuring that people have access to safe and reliable sanitation in accordance with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, to have water and sanitation for all by 2030.

Besides creating awareness on sanitation, the purpose of this day is also to focus on the overflows and leaks from pipes and poor wastewater treatment works that result in untreated human waste being pumped into rivers, streams, oceans and groundwater causing harm to human and ecosystem health.

South Africa’s performance on SDG 6 is rather poor and it is quite probable that the country will not meet its SDG targets in water and sanitation by 2030. In previous reports to the United Nations on SDG 6, South Africa appears to be doing well with “95% of the population using safely managed drinking water services” and “83% in 2018 (StatsSA, 2019) of its population using safely managed sanitation services”.

However, government’s own admission suggests that there are still approximately 2.8 million households (17%) without access to improved sanitation services and almost 280,791 households that practice open defecation (Department of Water and Sanitation Report to Parliament, 2021/2022).

In 2018, it was estimated that there were 4,500 schools still using pit latrines. That number is now sitting at almost 1,000 but the ongoing challenge for many of these schools is a lack of access to water.

The way government defines access and safely managed sanitation must be explored. Many of these sanitation services are shared or communal toilets that have additional challenges such as safety, no water, poor hygiene and crime.

The 83% of people using “safe” sanitation services must be further unpacked. In cases of communal toilets and pit latrines, these should not be included in the government’s report to the UN on its SDG target. The reality is the government is really struggling to provide toilets to schools and poor communities.

Not only is there a lack of toilets for people to use but the management of wastewater is in a dire state in the country. It is a fact that billions of litres of sewage and wastewater are spilling into rivers and oceans every day from industrial, pharmaceutical and hospital wastewater. The contaminants associated with the wastewater can contain excessive nutrients, pharmaceutical remains, trace metals, and pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites.


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Poor wastewater treatment is not a stand-alone issue — it has to be viewed in conjunction with SDG 2 to end hunger and build food sovereignty. There is a known and established link between irrigation water quality and food safety, especially products that are consumed raw.

The consumption of food crops that have been irrigated with contaminated water could pose a health risk and increase foodborne outbreaks such as gastro-enteric illnesses or hepatitis A. E coli in irrigation water is a good indicator of an increased risk of contracting a waterborne disease.

Given that more than 60% of wastewater treatment works are in a poor to critical state, it must be assumed that much of this contamination is ending up in our fresh water and affecting our food.

Contaminated water will have a direct impact on human health and food supplies as this same polluted water is being used for irrigation in the agricultural sector. While the agricultural sector can be a cause of water pollution (pesticides, loss of soil, waterlogging land — and an article for another day), it can also become a casualty of water pollution. Contaminated and untreated wastewater can contaminate crops and transmit disease to consumers and farmworkers. The crops that can be affected include grapes, maize, citrus, most vegetables and pecan nuts.

Small-scale and emerging farmers rely on these polluted rivers and streams and do not have the means to purify the water before using it. In 2011, high levels of E coli in Europe resulted in 49 fatalities and left thousands seriously ill. The potential risk can also affect jobs and the economy, as Spain lost more than €200-million per week and 70,000 jobs were under threat.

South Africa cannot afford to have a similar situation.

In 2019, Prof Friedo JW Herbig wrote that the lack of action on effluent and sewage pollution should be treated as a conservation crime. A non-governmental organisation, Gariep Watch, has been doing research and water testing on the Orange River and covers almost 800km of the river. According to the organisation, the Department of Water and Sanitation stopped monitoring in 2014 and the Gariep Watch water quality information is now believed to be the only reliable water quality data available in the catchments in which they operate.

Gariep Watch believes that self-governance of water is going to become the norm. The high levels of pollution that they have found have resulted in Gariep Watch laying criminal charges against municipal managers of five towns along the river where wastewater is not being properly treated or discharged.

The organisation has used citizen science and water quality monitoring information to build a case against the municipal managers and to hold them accountable. We will watch this space because if they win, there may be a lot more municipal managers being charged around the country.

Laying criminal charges and going to court is only one way and usually the last resort for many activists to hold people accountable. It is a costly exercise and time-consuming. Could WaterCAN’s aim to build a network of activist citizen science be the groundwork to ensure better control over our water resources? Whatever the choices, we have to rise up and protest against water injustice.

In terms of the SDGs, South Africa’s government cannot be allowed to get away with telling the world lies and claiming easy victories. It has failed the people and will not meet its SDG targets by 2030. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    Lets just remember: our sewage crisis is primarily due to the ANC and the ongoing lack of maintenance due to their corruption.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Viva, ANC, Viva. Does anyone out there have a solution to the ANC?

  • Prof Bill Richards - retired Richards says:

    As an ex-Director of Umgeni Water who was instrumental in the organisation taking over a number of wastewater treatment works in its operational area in order the protect downstream water quality, I am a firm believer in taking the responsibility for wastewater treatment away from local government and setting up multifunctional water authorities responsible for total water management as was done in the UK following the Ogden report. Prof Bill Richards (Retired)

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    I was very happy when I learnt that ActionSA is taking the Minister of Cogta and the Durban Metro to court to compel them to fix the sewage problem in Durban. They need to go further and include Emfuleni, Lekwa and also lay criminal charges or have these people to be privately prosecuted criminally because what they are doing is criminal. The era of complaining and talking about SDGs is over because the ANC regime will understand when they are criminally charged nothing else. ActionSA has shown that there is something that can be done and even criminally prosecute them. Then the penny will drop!

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