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Deployment of citizen science could have helped avoid the Hammanskraal cholera crisis


Dr Mark Graham is director of GroundTruth Environment and Engineering in Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal, a research associate at UKZN’s Centre for Water Resources Research, and a founder member of the United Nations University’s Regional Centre of Expertise. He has a long involvement with the Water Research Commission (WRC) as a research scientist.

Increased monitoring is vital to improved governance. Citizen science provides a powerful solution, empowering local communities with the data on water quality they need to take action and alert authorities to key pollution issues.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has personally visited Hammanskraal, along with fellow government officials, to take in the state of the wastewater treatment following the recent cholera outbreak. This governmental attention comes too late.

Hundreds of people have been hospitalised, 29 people are dead and 29 families are grieving the losses. Another two people died of cholera in the Free State and one in Mpumalanga. Communities are devastated, afraid, frustrated and disempowered.

While the cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal is undoubtedly a tragedy, it is part of a long history of waterborne disease outbreaks in South Africa largely associated with the ruinous state of our wastewater infrastructure and treatment systems.

Scientific articles have been published with regularity over the past 30 years reporting on how South Africa’s wastewater treatment plants are outdated, poorly maintained, mismanaged, or, in some cases, outright abandoned.

The Green Drop Reports between 2010 and 2013 on wastewater treatment works consistently showed that most of the wastewater treatment works in South Africa were critically failing. In each article, report or publication, warnings were issued on the potentially devastating effects of no remediation or intervention.

A problem ignored

The government’s response was to simply stop monitoring and ignore the problem. Over the past few weeks, 32 people have paid for that response with their lives.  

I have a photograph of the Fouriesburg/Mashaeng wastewater treatment works (WWTW) taken last week – there is no treatment of the sewage entering the works as it simply bypasses the infrastructure, discharging directly into the local river.

Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke told Parliament last week that recent cholera deaths were a “harsh reminder” of the continued neglect of municipal infrastructure, while Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Thembi Nkadimeng said, “Needless to say, the cholera outbreak could have been avoided.”

And that is the point. Without monitoring, you cannot know where the problems are and you cannot direct management actions.

These issues are preventable with appropriate intervention, which starts with monitoring to detect emerging problems. The government has pointed to a lack of funds to implement widespread, effective water quality and wastewater treatment works monitoring.

Even as the Hammanskraal disaster unfolds, government water quality monitoring systems are being downsized due to an apparent lack of funding – reported during the most recent National Water Monitoring Plan implementation workshop of 5 June – after the Hammanskraal disaster had already begun unfolding.

Interviewed about the disaster, City of Tshwane Mayor Cilliers Brink admitted that the government is woefully underfunded to even undertake routine maintenance and remediation, leaving it as no surprise that monitoring falls by the wayside.

Citizen science — a quick alternative

Conventional water quality monitoring techniques are undoubtedly costly. But widespread water quality monitoring does not need to be prohibitively expensive.

Citizen science (also known as community-based monitoring), where data collection happens by volunteers or non-professionals, presents a scientifically robust, affordable alternative. Water quality data can be effectively, quickly, easily, and, most importantly, cost-effectively gathered and used in reporting by anyone with access to appropriate tools and minimal training.

Several powerful citizen science methods for monitoring water quality have been available for decades, including the use of clarity or transparency tubes, the mini-stream assessment scoring system (miniSASS), or more recently, even monitoring simply using smartphone applications.

Ironically, South Africa, under the leadership of the Water Research Commission, is a pioneer for many of these techniques, exporting much of this innovation to the rest of the world.

Using citizen science water quality monitoring may have helped prevent the Hammanskraal cholera outbreak by empowering the Hammanskraal community with the agency to monitor the state of the Rooiwal WWTW and track and report more publicly on its performance.

The Rooiwal WWTW effluent is released into the Apies River, leading to the Leeuwkraal Dam, the source for the Temba water treatment plant that in turn supplies water to Hammanskraal, and the most likely source of the contamination that led to the outbreak (though the source is extremely difficult to isolate for certain and is still being investigated).

For example, water clarity tubes could have been used to assess the suspended solids downstream of the treatment works, signalling problems with WWTW treatment processes. Regular miniSASS stream health assessments could have indicated wastewater pollution based on the health of the aquatic invertebrates present up and downstream of the WWTW effluent discharge point.

These assessments can be done at minimal cost by local community members, NGOs and concern groups. Had these citizen science tools been used, the community could have built up a database used to highlight these problems “scientifically” to the relevant authorities and leverage the municipality into action sooner, potentially preventing this disaster.

As things stand, disaster will happen again

The current status of wastewater treatment works in South Africa means that this will happen again if governance continues unchanged and monitoring is not prioritised. 

Based on government’s assessment of the performance of sewage treatment works in SA (Green Drop report of 2021/22), it could happen anywhere across the country.

Quoting from that report: “The most prominent risks were observed on a treatment level, and pointed to works that exceeded their design capacity, dysfunctional processes, and equipment (especially disinfection), and effluent and sludge non-compliance.”

In that report, the Rooiwal wastewater treatment works had a Green Drop score of about 70%. The average score of 96 wastewater treatment works assessed in the Free State was 23%. As things stand, it is not a case of if, but rather when and where, a Hammanskraal-type event will happen again.

Increased monitoring is vital to improved governance. Citizen science provides a powerful solution, empowering local communities with the data on water quality they need to take action and alert authorities to key pollution issues.

Of course, frequent citizen science or community-based monitoring will not solve the systemic corruption, lack of skilled personnel, and poor resourcing currently at the heart of the disastrous state of South Africa’s wastewater treatment works.

However, it could be a significant step in mobilising communities and giving them the agency, tools and scientific credibility to interact with government and local authorities and to hold them to account.

Used wisely, the government can use citizen science to increase nationwide monitoring at minimal cost, simultaneously increasing community involvement in governance and helping build back the trust critical to the management of this resource.

Multiple authors and writers in Daily Maverick have highlighted the need and urgency of civil society to become more involved in the care and management of this country’s resources – none more critical than our scarce water, and particularly the options for building a network of citizen scientists to help protect our water resources.  

This is more relevant now as we enter an El Niño drying cycle, where these issues will become more acute with less dilution from our recent relatively high rainfall.

It’s been said before but is worth repeating here: when the power goes down, some of us have generators and candles. With no, or highly polluted water resources, we have no other alternatives. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Excellent piece, Mark. Basically, we knew we were F—ed, and we are still F—ed, but we won’t be so F—ed if those responsible would get off their backsides and do what they are paid to do, while civil society must get off its backside and do what it’s not paid to do but must do it anyway.

    • Mark Graham says:

      Thanks Dennis. And you are correct, Civil Society does need to engage here. Citizen Science tools/approaches, using these for monitoring of water resources, and then being informed and with objective data to engage the authorities around, should strengthen the case for encouraging/cajoling and getting on and doing what needs doing – by all relevant parties!

  • Peter Smith says:

    Hi Mark. Gr8 to know there is a tool available. Where can we contact you?

    • Mark Graham says:

      Hi Peter – I tried to send an email link. Seems this did not work. My email address as per the GroundTruth website. Feel free to reach out and I look forward to that!

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