Thursday, 10 June 2021

When will every SA Citizen be able to trust the water supply?

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When will every SA Citizen be able to trust the water supply?

No Water. No Life. No Blue. No Green. – Marine Biologist Sylvia Earle

Without regard to whether some place is wealthy or poor, everybody should have the chance at clean air and clean water. – Barak Obama

These were not words flippantly spoken to make soundbites. They are truisms of the highest degree. No water – no life. For most of you reading this you don’t think twice when you wake up in the morning, turn on your shower, fill your kettle for your morning coffee or flush your toilet. You never question the water that flows through your pipes, wondering if any impurities or germs could get through the system. You have trust – blind trust, but should you have?

According to world renowned microbiologist and water expert, Professor Eugene Cloete, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research, Innovation and postgraduate studies at Stellenbosch University, “If you’re looking at our big cities we probably have one of the best water qualities in the world with utilities like Rand Water being ranked amongst the 10 best in the world.” But sadly you don’t have to travel too far out of these cities to see a very different story,” continues Cloete.

Rural nightmare

“This story changes in the municipalities in rural areas. Here most people rely on water from a borehole, water tank or often a river. I wouldn’t even trust water that came out of a tap in these areas and there’s a very simple explanation - a complete lack of technical expertise and a failure in the maintenance of their water and sewage infrastructures.

“The guilt is also shared here by industry, food processing plants or mining industry’s acid drainage. Sewage plus the effluent from these industries is going into our rivers and the sad thing is the technology is there to avoid and improve these situations but it’s not being taken up.”

Like his colleague Professor Cloete, Burt Rodrigues, CEO of Biodx has spent the last 16 years finding ways to counteract these problems. “There are regulations governing all these issues, but regulatory compliance has been allowed to erode with people obtaining tenders without complying with the strict national frameworks that are in place. Trust is firmly gone in citizen’s minds. Too many people wake up to the reality of wondering if the water they drink will make them sick today,” explains Rodrigues.

Affecting young lives

Professor Cloete, points out that the number of school children who get sick from water borne infection which stops them attending school is around 15% - 20%. “The bottom line”, he says, “is essential education isn’t being given, which sees justice being eroded. People are entitled as a human right to clean water, decent sanitation and education. You can’t have one without the other. It’s hard to imagine that this is happening in the 21st century – it’s a major failure.”

Where does the buck lie?

It all leads back to state capture and corruption because people were not held accountable, points out Rodrigues. “Even within organisations, whether State Owned Enterprises (SEOs) or not, there’s mistrust right from lower management to the CEO who’s often undermined himself, not always being allowed to make a decision based on what’s best for his consumers. People have lost trust in those who are supposed to protect them,”

The production of clean water has many similarities to the way blood flows through our veins, passing through our kidneys to take away the ‘bad stuff’ before the purified blood flows back into our veins. When industry and mines release their effluent into the system without the proper cleaning and chemical processes that should be done, seeing faecal coliform amongst other bacteria, seeping into our rivers and dams, danger is imminent.

According to Professor Cloete one of the main problems is a lack of capacity. “At one time these systems, our rivers and dams, were closely monitored, which simply doesn’t happen any longer. This shouldn’t be happening as the technology is there. Today we are training engineers at our Water Institute through the Energy Water SETA which hopefully will help this situation.”

In the short term however why are more people not standing up and demanding this basic human right? “People feel paralysed to do anything about it,” explains Rodrigues. “They feel they’re powerless to change things. We have the innovation that’s needed so you have to ask the question - is any of this necessary when we have modern technology to disinfect and extract pollutants from the water as well as accurately monitor biofilms (microorganisms that grow on surfaces) and other infectious components? The answer is an easy no!”

Published in Energy and Environment