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Our slow-onset sewage disaster is on the verge of becoming a tsunami that will overwhelm us

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Professor Anthony Turton is a water expert with the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State.

We have lost our dilution capacity and our rivers have been turned into hazardous sewers breeding harmful pathogens. This means that cholera is only one of the risks we are facing from raw sewage in our rivers.

This week, our national sewage crisis really began to bite. A media storm has erupted over the cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal, while some families are now grieving for their dead relatives.

It is important that we start this story by remembering the dead, because they were breadwinners in families, all doing their best to survive the tribulations of our times. They died unnecessarily, the victims of the slow-onset disaster I spoke of in 2008 at a conference titled “Science Real and Relevant”.

At that conference, reference was made to three water-quality challenges that we, in the dwindling aquatic sciences community, were all too aware of, but unable to speak about.

We noted trends that data sets were showing us, and we felt a growing sense of alarm about the consequences of the trajectories on the graphs.

We noted that our systems were failing rapidly, with much of our hard infrastructure in the water sector approaching the end of its useful design life.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Stop tossing buckets of raw sewage into our rivers, urges Green Scorpions inspector

We noted with alarm the loss of skills, as the ravages of purging took its toll on our science, engineering, and technology core. 

We noted the loss of dilution capacity in all our rivers after the first National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS), mandated by the National Water Act (NWA), indicated that we had allocated 98% of all the water in all our rivers and dams, as far back as 2002.

Read Daily Maverick’s full coverage of the cholera outbreak here

We noted the migration of plumes of uranium moving into the headwaters of both the Vaal and Crocodile rivers, tributaries of the Orange and Limpopo respectively, driven by the uncontrolled decanting of acid mine water, as the gold-mining industry started to collapse.

From these sets of data a simple conclusion was drawn: South Africa was heading for a slow-onset disaster unless we could convince our political leadership that we need to do things differently.

Here are some facts in the wake of the cholera crisis.

Fact # 1: The South African economy ran out of water in 2002 when the NWRS revealed that we had already allocated 98% of all the water we have legally available in terms of the NWA. This means that we cannot convince investors to have confidence in our future. We face an investment drought as a direct result of this startling but irrefutable fact.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s sewage pollution crisis is impacting our food safety

Fact # 2: We produce more than five billion litres of sewage daily, all of which is discharged into our rivers and dams, only about 10% of which is treated to a standard that makes it safe for direct human contact.

Fact # 3: The Green and Blue Drop Reporting System was suspended by Nomvula Mokonyane when the data were showing trends in the failure of our sewage treatment works. This is like a pilot in a commercial airliner switching off the radar screen because the information being revealed was becoming uncomfortable to the poorly trained, but rapidly promoted cockpit crew. This is the undeniable genesis of the deaths we are seeing today.

How can a constitutional clause be so irrational as to prevent one part of government from intervening in another to avert a catastrophe?

Fact # 4: Because of facts 1 and 2 combined, our tsunami of sewage can no longer be diluted in our rivers. In fact, more than 60% of all our large dams are now eutrophic, with highly enriched, water-breeding toxic cyanobacteria, all thriving off the warming water and growing flow of nutrients from sewage. In simple truth, we have lost our dilution capacity, and our rivers have been turned into hazardous sewers breeding harmful pathogens, including the flesh-eating bacteria that cost RW Johnson his leg. This means that cholera is only one of the risks we are facing from raw sewage in our rivers. For example, hepatitis A is a water-borne pathogen directly related to sewage-contaminated rivers, but this is being reported separately in our slow-onset disaster, so the penny has yet to drop.

Fact # 5: The current minister of water and sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, was brave enough to reinstate the Green and Blue Drop Reporting System, which has now shown that more than 90% of our wastewater treatment works are dysfunctional. He is a brave man for doing this, and I want to publicly support him as he tries to rebuild the trust that was destroyed by a previous minister.

So, this is where we are today. People are dying as a direct consequence of decisions made by a former minister, who clearly failed in her custodial role. She must ultimately be held to account for her dereliction of duty and blatant betrayal of public trust.

Just this week, a spokesperson for the Presidency noted that his office was unable to intervene in another crisis, because the cooperative governance clause in our Constitution prevented one sphere of government from intervening in the activities of another sphere. We must challenge this constitutional weakness and seek clarification from the appropriate court.

How can a constitutional clause be so irrational as to prevent one part of government from intervening in another to avert a catastrophe? How many more lives must be lost to the absurdity of legal protection for those in power, while their activities are clearly not in the best interest of society as a whole?

Read more in Daily Maverick: Makana Municipality’s sewage has been running into rivers and streams since 2014

Surely a constitutional democracy is about empowering the citizens by protecting them against the consequences of failed service delivery?

From the depths of despair in the families of those whose lives have been lost to an entirely preventable illness, let us find the strength to rally as one and shout out: “Enough is enough.” Our noble Constitution grants all citizens rights to a better life in an environment that is safe from harm.

Let us restore that dream by demanding that our sewage flows be brought under control. Surely this is the basis of modern civilisation, irrespective of political persuasion or ideological preference? DM

Professor Anthony Turton is a water expert with the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State.

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  • Ritchie Morris says:

    Thank you Prof Turton for telling it like it is. You are absolutely correct, the Co-operative Governance clause in various laws is used as a big excuse by layered spheres of government to kick the ball down the canal and not deal with the actual issue/s in a decisive manner. This is particularly so in the environmental, contamination and water arenas. The law too has become too procedural and complicated in its application – instead of being enforced in a simple and straight-forward manner to achieve the desired goal. Scientists and engineers need to be heard a lot more regularly and a lot more loudly. What is also needed is a National Environmental Ombudsman, independent of any national department, who has the power to act decisively and issue instructions/directives – especially where a crises exists, or may occur – such as we currently have. A final comment, without incentivizing the reduction in population numbers and growth, the demands on the environment will continue to increase – whilst already the ecological carrying capacity has been exceeded in many areas, as you note with most water already allocated. This is compounded by the deterioration in physical carrying capacity of the infrastructure in urban areas needed to service those populations.

  • Pist Orf says:

    It is a rare privilege to read the opinion of an actual expert.
    Wake up, people. Opinionistas opine, but we need to filter out the noise and actually receive the (scary) real information.

  • Bee Man says:

    Scary stuff indeed. If only sich insights couod be made available to our general public in a way they could understand with meaning… and do something about it at the polls.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    We have to sort out every river and every sewage plant(from w cape to limpopo)thanks for not doing enough politicians

  • betsy Kee says:

    Prof Turton’s analysis is clear enough for any layman including ministers to understand. When will our people wake up and realise that political ideology must give way to pragmatism. And we need to control our burgeoning population!

  • Lothar Böttcher says:

    It’s both enlightening and frightening seeing facts, which have brought to the attention of the relevant governmental departments decades ago.
    It is disheartening when political ideology, nepotism, greed, corruption and myopic vision by the ruling class results in (a foreseeable) catastrophe.
    South Africa needs the best people for the job at hand, irrespective of any ideological meddling or race related preferences other than being qualified and able to do the job.

  • Prof Bill Richards - retired Richards says:

    The only answer to this growing problem is to take away responsibility for water supply and sanitation from local government and set up as the British did following the Brogden report 10 self funding independent Regional Water Authorities responsible for all water management in their areas
    A very successful model for South Africa!

    • Stef Coetzee says:

      With thanks to Prof. Turton for an excellent exposition. To your point, Prof. Richards, the UK used to be excellent but now also cannot cope with the combined problems of increasing population, urbanisation and climate change. In 2022 there were over 389,000 discharges of untreated sewage into UK rivers, totalling over 2.4 million hours of pollution. The UK is consistently ranked as one of the worst countries in Europe for water quality (ref. Surfers Against Sewage website)

  • David Pennington says:

    Remember PW Botha

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