Illegal stormwater connections result in flooded sewage plants. With proper planning, the treatment of sewage can be turned into a process that creates clean water and provides much-needed jobs in poor communities. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)
Last year came with myriad environmental disasters, including raw sewage flowing into our rivers. The intense heat and flooding of this festive season has been a timely warning of what happens when we don’t take the long-term impacts of climate change seriously. Sipho Kings has compiled a list of tasks government should tackle this year to solve environmental problems and secure our collective future.
Problem: Global carbon emissions last year were the highest in history, despite countries signing up to lower emissions. South Africa is already 2°C hotter than it was a century ago. If every country acts like South Africa, the world will warm to over 4°C by the end of this century. That number could be double in Southern Africa, as warming here is intensified. At 4°C ecosystems start to collapse and floods and heat waves make life for humans untenable. But instead of planning for the damage that this will cause, our national and local governments are doing little to make communities more resilient.
Solution: Take climate change seriously. The department with overall responsibility — environmental affairs — has been sidelined and does not have the political clout to get other departments, such as energy, to take serious action on climate change. Fix this, and put political pressure behind the biggest issue of this century.
Problem: South Africans have an American-sized carbon footprint, mostly thanks to Eskom and other large companies such as Sasol. These release far more carbon than their peers in developed and developing countries. Industry has also consistently stymied efforts by government to force factories and power plants to lower emissions and improve air quality. This means the cost of their pollution is carried by people, in the form of breathing in polluted air and having to deal with more intense weather.
Solution: The impending carbon tax is a way to use the one department that has power over industry — treasury — to force companies to change how they operate. A carbon tax will put a price on each tonne of carbon that companies release into the air. In other countries, this has been the stick to get industry to lower emissions. The tax also comes with a carrot, so companies get tax breaks for lowering emissions. In theory, the money raised by the tax goes towards helping companies to reduce their emissions, so it doesn’t cost them in the long run. It comes into effect in June and government has to ensure it is not weakened by lobbying from big companies (which have already delayed the tax by half a decade).
Integrated Resource Plan 2018
Problem: South Africa is using an energy plan from 2011, with wildly incorrect numbers for how much the economy and energy demand will grow. This means too much power supply is being built. An attempt to update this plan, which ruled out the need for a nuclear build, was stopped by the government of then-president Jacob Zuma. The old plan means the country is not doing what it needs to do to lower carbon emissions and contracts are still being signed for more coal-fired power plants.
Solution: An updated plan was put out for public comment last year and should come into force this year. It has several scenarios for what the energy grid could look like in 2030. The plan recommends that coal-fired power plants are shutdown (because they’re at the end of their lifespan) and replaced with a mix of wind, solar and gas power plants. Unions and other lobby groups are pushing back on this proposal, because they want to preserve jobs in the coal industry, despite the negative effect on citizens’ health. Government needs to resist this pressure.
Problem: South Africa is a water-scarce country, with regular and long droughts. The only reason we’ve averted more crises is thanks to large dams that store enough water to get through droughts. But we don’t act like a water-scarce nation, and Gauteng uses double the world average of water, and a quarter of all municipal water flows out of broken pipes. Many homes and municipalities don’t pay for water — owing the water department more than R10-billion — so new infrastructure cannot be built. The population is growing whereas the amount of available water is not. In Gauteng, this will lead to a crisis of Cape Town proportions in the next few years. At a municipal level, a shortage of engineers and corruption means that 20-million people do not get clean water on a regular basis. The department that should help to fix this — water and sanitation — has been crippled by a decade of poor leadership and a culture of corruption.
Solution: We need to act like a water-scarce country. Lawns cannot be green in winter. Cars cannot be washed with drinking water. Fixing the crisis at a municipal level is part of the much larger effort to fix broken municipalities. The fact that 20-million people don’t have clean water should add impetus to this task. At a national level, new Water and Sanitation Minister Gugile Nkwinti has started to unclog the pipes, with investigations happening throughout the department. He needs more time.
Problem: Fifty thousand litres of untreated sewage flows into our rivers every single day. It makes people sick and pollutes crops. The country’s more than 600 sewage treatment plants are at fault, with at least half not working properly. Maintenance money is stolen out of municipal budgets, and dodgy contracts are awarded to companies tasked with building new plants. Things are so bad that the army has been called to the Vaal to fix that sewage crisis.
Solution: Get municipalities working. Until qualified people are overseeing where the money goes, and engineers are working at sewage plants, raw sewage will continue to flow into rivers. With looming water shortages, sewage plants can become even more of an asset. By treating sewage, water can be extracted and treated to become of drinking quality, and municipalities can turn a profit by selling water. This will fix two problems at once.
Problem: In our country, tens of thousands of people still use bucket toilets. Schoolchildren are still falling into poorly built pit toilets and drowning in faeces. Contractors are still profiting by taking shortcuts in construction, yet the unit tasked with overseeing sanitation at a national level is given little support. Sanitation is a crisis that politicians don’t want to talk about because toilets aren’t sexy. And it’s a big reason for why infant mortality rates are so high, as elevated E. coli levels and other pollutants from raw sewage make our children sick.
Solution: Do more than talk about the crisis the next time a child dies of cholera. The sanitation component of the department — constantly moved between departments — needs to be given overall authority over toilets and sanitation. Smart toilets can create compost and generate energy, changing this from a conversation about waste to one about benefits for communities.
Illegal and unregulated construction
Problem: Construction companies and contractors get away with illegal building all the time. Shopping centres are built on critical wetlands, illegal water connections steal water and illegal stormwater connections mean sewage treatment plants are overwhelmed with flood water. All this results in a country that is eating away at its ability to survive a changing climate, with more storms and damaging weather events. A combination of corruption and too few inspectors mean consequences are few. This extends to the mining sector, where mines are destroying entire communities, rivers and much of Mpumalanga.
Solution: Employ more environmental inspectors, known as green scorpions. They can start by tackling illegal builders and ensure that ecosystems remain intact. The environmental department also needs to be given back oversight of the environment at mines so they do not act with impunity and leave massive problems for future generations.