/ 18 April 2017

​Why we don’t have cool, clear water

Phosphate mining companies in Phalaborwa have been polluting local water supplies.
Phosphate mining companies in Phalaborwa have been polluting local water supplies.


The Mail & Guardian reported last week that the critical Olifants catchment is being heavily polluted along its entire course. Coal mines, power stations, farms, illegal platinum mines, municipal sewerage treatment plants and citizens dump waste into its waters with little consequence. That water flows from Mpumalanga to the Indian Ocean, through various municipalities and provinces — which are effectively exporting polluted water to Mozambique. The authorities charged with stopping that pollution are not doing so.

With little accurate data, it is hard to quantify the overall impact of this on the river. But, in its investigation, the M&G talked to scientists and local officials who are trying to piece together what is going on. They have found elevated levels of pollutants, from phosphates to heavy metals.

All these problems are easy to fix. With enough attention, the Olifants could be bringing clean water to the millions of people and other life forms that rely on it. Doing so is especially important in a world where climate change will make rainfall haphazard at best.

Sewerage plants
The 600-odd sewerage treatment plants are acknowledged as the single worst polluters of the country’s water. Even the best plants, with the most resources, struggle.

Northern Works in Johannesburg, for example, regularly releases untreated sewerage because contractors dump rubble in the pipes that run into the plant, and heavy rains flood the plant. At the other end of the resource spectrum, Deneysville next to the Vaal Dam allowed untreated sewage to flow through its plant into Gauteng’s source of drinking water because it had not upgraded its plants. Liquid chlorine is used in these emergencies but there was none because the municipality had run out of money. The national water and sanitation department had to step in with emergency funding.

To solve this, South Africa has to solve a much wider problem: the reality that outside of the metros, municipalities barely function. Money needed for maintenance is used elsewhere, or stolen. The engineers needed to maintain the plants prefer to move to cities to ply their trade.

If the problems were fixed, sewerage treatment plants could generate electricity and release water clean enough to drink, as is the case in Beaufort West.

Mines have a long history of operating without repercussions. Their success has been tied to that of the country but their external negative effects are ignored.

The 6 000 abandoned mines that litter the landscape are open wounds in the ground, releasing heavy metals into groundwater and rivers. Many of these mines are concentrated in Mpumalanga, where the Olifants River originates.

Post-1994 legislation has dramatically improved the standards to which mines should be held, but there is minimal oversight of this.

To get permission to mine, companies use environmental impact practitioners to create environmental impact assessments. These practitioners are paid for by the mines, so they very, very, rarely find a reason that mining should not go ahead.

Those reports are then rubber-stamped by officials that are told to do so, or have little in the way of training to interrogate the reports.

Operating mines — legal or illegal — face little oversight. Inspectors from the departments best tasked to do this — water and environmental affairs — have been effectively barred from the mining sector as a result of changes in legislation. The One Environment System means mines are the sole responsibility of the minerals department. In dozens of investigations, the M&G has found little in the way of this department ensuring mines work efficiently and correctly with regard to environmental laws.

This could easily be changed. Impartial people doing environmental impact assessments would ensure that the real effects of mines would be considered. Then, only mines with minimal impact on their surroundings would be given the go-ahead. Inspectors with knowledge and clout would then check compliance in these mines, and hunt down the dozens — perhaps hundreds — of illegal mines operating in catchments such as the Olifants.

Catchment management agencies
Polluters can pollute because the management of water and environment resources in South Africa is fragmented. In the Olifants, the national water department owns the water. This is then managed and distributed through provincial agencies, such as Rand Water in Gauteng and Lepelle Northern in Limpopo. These provincial agencies provide water to municipalities. The municipalities must get water to users and then clean dirty water before releasing it back into rivers.

A high staff turnover at each of these levels means knowledge and skills get lost.

The different levels of responsibility means each party can shift blame for failures to the other.

Because of shifting responsibility and staff turnover, water users consequently struggle to find the right person to deal with problems.

Those who want to pollute exploit these gaps to such an extent that water users, with no authority to turn to, have had to set up WhatsApp groups to shame people who pollute, or who use too much water.

Much of this would not happen if catchment management agencies worked. These agencies are mandated by water legislation, are a legal requirement for the country’s water management and are meant to bring the many authorities overseeing water under one roof.

In the Olifants, this would mean mines, municipalities, farmers and anyone else using water would be involved in deciding how water is used. The agency would have a direct line to the sections of government that ensure nobody breaks the law and pollutes, and to those who are supposed to ensure maintenance occurs.

When an agency does work, as it does in the Inkomati-Usuthu catchment (which borders Mozambique and Swaziland and includes the Sabie and the Inkomati and Crocodile rivers which join the Incomati River that flows into the Indian Ocean) the results are striking. In that catchment the water quality released by wastewater plants has dramatically improved.

The country should have 19 effective catchment management agencies but only two function effectively. Corruption, staff turnover and competing water users ensure that a decade of work put into the agencies has yielded little success.

If these agencies were effective, the Olifants and other rivers would flow with clean, safe water.