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Producer: Joy Summers
Presenter: Bongani Bingwa
Researcher: Quereshini Naidoo
Genre: Environment and Conservation

Dead babies in the Eastern Cape. Dead crocodiles in the Oliphants River. Dead fish in the Vaal. 7 000 Cholera cases, crumbling infrastructure and large scale sewage spills. Last year South Africans, shell-shocked by the electricity crisis, wondered what would be next.

Bongani Bingwa (Carte Blanche presenter): "The lights had barely been switched back on when a Sunday newspaper said the next crisis would be with water. The minister said that a water crisis was looming, but others weren't so sure. And as the year drew to a close it led to the firing of a CSIR political scientist who said he'd simply been telling it like it was."

Dr Anthony Turton went from hero to zero. Putting his professional reputation on the line, his presentation - which he never got to deliver - raises uncomfortable questions about water supply and the effects of acid mine drainage on human health.

Bongani: "As you see it, what is the problem with our water?"

Dr Anthony Turton (Water policy specialist): "The problem that we have with our water is simply that we have reached the limit of our readily available supply. If you take this cup of coffee as an example. If that cup of coffee represents our total natural water resource, we have now allocated 98% of that. We have probably over allocated that, but the best data we have is 98% allocated. Our role now is to start saying: are we going to stop growing our economy because we have no more water to sustain activities, or are we going to start cascading that water around?"

Anthony Turton may have been the one to hit the headlines, but he was not the first to raise the flag. The alarm emanating from specialists in the water sector concurred - water-stressed South Africa simply doesn't have enough water for us to treat it the way we are. Rivers are dying and some dams are under siege from a scourge called blue-green algae.

Nowhere was that more obvious than here [on screen], just downstream of Gauteng. This scum covers the Magalies River - just above the point where it flows into the Hartebeespoort Dam. It's called blue green algae and it's caused by too many phosphates and nitrates in the water, which creates the perfect environment for it to flourish. This enrichment of the water is called 'eutrophication'.

Bongani: "Blue green algae is a symptom of eutrophication and is considered one of South Africa's most critical water challenges. The case of Hartebeespoort Dam is one of the worst in the world.
This water is toxic and is mostly caused by sewage effluent flowing into our rivers."

Around 12 to 16 sewage works empty their effluent into the water that flows into the dam.

This is what can happen to rivers when there is just too much sewage effluent running into them or it is not treated according to the strictest standards. It's a worldwide water challenge, but already 35% of all our water in our storage dams is eutrophic or hypertrophic.

Carin van Ginkel is a Department of Water Affairs specialist scientist.

Bongani: "Why is eutrophication considered one of our most important water challenges?"

Carin Van Ginkel (Dept of Water Affairs specialist scientist): "Because there are very little management actions that are really effective."

Bongani: "This is easily the most revolting sight I have ever seen... it's bubbling. The putrid smell - you don't want to fall in here, you will get sick."

Not all blue green blooms are toxic, but a significant number are. These poisons, according to one expert, make strychnine look like vitamin syrup. They attack the liver and have killed wild animals in the Kruger Park and domestic stock.

Carin: "There's a lot of incidences. There's a whole dairy herd that died in the Eastern Cape."

Bongani: "This has been linked to colon cancer?"

Carin: "Ja, the whole of the intestines can be affected. You can get skin irritations, you can get flu' like symptoms, the liver is impacted mostly."

The water here is of such poor quality that when Rustenburg needed more water for drinking, it was decided to pipe good quality water from Rand Water miles away in Vereeniging, rather than dip into this pea-green soup just around the corner.

Carin: "We definitely don't have it under control - I mean this is showing it."

Keeping these toxins out of the drinking water is expensive and difficult. That's the job of Leanne Coetzee. 6% of Pretoria uses the Rietvlei Dam for drinking water and the algae there gave her a huge headache. Killing it with chlorine was not an option because, as it dies, it releases its toxins into the water, so the best way to remove it is at the source.

Leanne Coetzee (Deputy Director: Scientific Services): "The algae causes very inconsistent water - and the water treatment plant, it causes incredible leaps and bounds in the consistency of water quality. Now it's great - in an hour it's terrible."

Leanne is experimenting with these Solar Bee panels which create a current that stops the blue green algae from growing. Photographs from a year ago suggest it may be working, but some scientists are sceptical, as it still doesn't remove the source of the problem- phosphates and nitrates. She is giving it two years to see what happens.

Leanne: "All scientists are cautious. I'm not going to say this works until I've had a lot more data that I can analyse and test."

Bongani: "In October last year the South African Institute of Civil Engineering submitted a report to the parliamentary portfolio committee on water and it's pretty damning- using phrases like, 'grave concern,' 'someone has lost sight of the ball,' 'the status of our infrastructure is a crisis of the highest order.' To add to that, the former director general Professor Mike Muller has written an article saying it's time to panic.

Prof Mike Muller (Public & Development Manager: WITS): "If you look at the electricity crisis Bongani, the reason we had a month of blackouts was because, five years before, some decisions were taken that were wrong and some decisions weren't taken. And what I am saying is that in the water sector we have similar lead times. If you're not always looking ahead for the next four or five years, the chances are that, by the time you need to do something, it's too late and then you will be in crisis.
So I am saying panic at the right time, and the right time is probably now."

So is it time to panic? The only person to answer that question was minister Lindiwe Hendricks.

Bongani: "You say there is no crisis? We've spoken to scientists, engineers who've used words like, 'panic,' 'crisis'?"

Lindiwe Hendricks (Dept Water Affairs & Forestry): "Well it's their words. Because I say, if you look at what's in the media and you look at what is being said about water, they say there is a water crisis; the country is going to run out of water. I'm saying it is incorrect. There is no impending crisis, as far as the security of supply is concerned."

But it wasn't just the media. Concerns were raised by water scientists and engineers - including those in her own department.

Bongani: "Some DWAF reports suggest that Gauteng may run out of water by 2013?"

Lindiwe: "Yes, that's because we know we don't have enough. We know that because we are planning. In November cabinet took a decision; approved a huge infrastructure project which is going to augment the system... Which is why I am saying we are not going to run out of water. We have planned, we have projected. So we are embarking on phase two of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project which will ensure that there is sufficient water in Gauteng."

Bongani: "Since we began filming this story there have been countless reports of problems with our water. In Vryheid, a small town in KwaZulu-Natal, their water has been described as brown, and is full of worms. In Witbank the same thing - brown water. In Umtata, sewerage was flowing down the main street. In Sedgefield, near Knysna, they have run out of water. The fact is that the management of our most important resource has been devolved down to the municipalities and in many cases they are simply not up to the job."

The Matjhabeng municipality runs Welkom and Odendalsrus. On the outskirts of Welkom, the Sand River borders Johan Terblanche's farm on the outskirts of Welkom. As chairperson of the NGO Eco Care, he was constantly receiving complaints from farmers about sewage being dumped in the river.

Johan Terblanche (Farmer, Chairman Northern Free State Ecocare): "For me, if my cattle drink this water they will become infected with measles. And for the other farmers downstream, if they use this water to irrigate their cabbages or lettuce, the Ascaris worms lay their eggs on the lettuce or cabbage and the farmer takes it back to the market and then the whole cycle begins again - which is unnecessary."

It got so bad that Johan has used the country's water legislation to lay two criminal charges against the previous municipal managers for polluting the surface water. One of the cases is in Odendalsrus and doesn't affect him at all, but he believes it's his duty as a concerned citizen.

Johan: "Because I am the chairperson, people phone me and say this is happening, so I said, 'You must just go and lay a charge'. But they are too scared to lay a charge. If no one else will do it, then I must do it."

Bongani: "The Odendalsrus sewage works haven't been working for at least the last three years. To top it all off, this plant is based at a farm which was once called Paradise and, as you can see, it's anything but."

The story of this disaster appears to be far more than mere incompetence. All this plant needed at the time was an upgrade. Instead, the contractor came in and ripped the whole thing up. When it became evident after a year that he couldn't complete the job properly he was asked to leave. It's still unclear how much he was paid, but it's run into the millions, and is now part of the court case that is being investigated.

Bongani: "If you win your cases, what happens?"

Johan: "It will be the best present in my life and we can all have clean water."

According to a written response from the Matjhabeng Municipality it will now cost R18-million rand to fix the sewage plant. In the meantime, sewage is simply re-diverted into the wetlands and pans that stretch for about 11km and end up in Eduard Steyn's farm across the road where he kept finding toilet paper in the cattle's drinking water.

Eduard Steyn (Farmer): "Bongani, let me show you where the pollution... where the sewerage has polluted the ground, how pitch black the ground is and if you smell it, it smells like raw sewerage."

Bongani: "Ugh, I know what you are thinking- they must pay these presenters a lot to do that."

Sadly the dysfunction we saw in Odendalsrus is not isolated, according to the Institute of Civil Engineers "The collapse of water supply and sanitation infrastructure is well into crisis mode in rural areas", says the Institution of civil engineers' submission. Mike Muller says government is well aware of the situation.

Mike Muller (Visiting Professor: Public & Development Management, WITS): "My understanding is that they know very well that a lot of waste water works are not working to specifications, and I think they say it's closer to 50%. But there's a widespread understanding that many municipalities are failing. What we are missing is a solution to that problem."

The solution to Welkom's sewage works appears to be missing too. The town's treatment plant is completely dysfunctional and half under water. It started with just one broken pump that wasn't fixed in time. The pump was used to ensure that treated effluent was pumped out of this pan [on screen] which is above the facility. When the rains came two years ago the water flooded these works directly below. They have never worked since, despite the fact that the minister was here eight months ago and issued a directive to the municipality to sort it out quickly.

Bongani: "Behind me is Welkom's main sewage works, which is out of commission and so the sewerage is pumping up over here... And what the city council has done is dug this trench, which diverts this into the Witpan, and that goes to the San River and eventually it lands up in the Vaal River. If it is human waste, it's here. There's faeces here, used condoms, sanitary pads - if it's disgusting, you will find it here."

It's this raw sewage that ends up in the Sand River floating past Johan Terblanche's farm. A few kilometres downstream the water is taken out for irrigation of food and drinking water for other Free State towns.

Bogani: "Fact is, you issued a directive, it has now been eight months, nothing has happened

Lindiwe: "We issued a directive and in 30 days they gave us a plan as to how they are going to correct. The issue of capacity again was a big problem, and the issue of finance was a big problem."

Bongani: "But would you not say, minister, if nothing has happened, it makes the department and you look ineffective."

Lindiwe: "Definitely, we have to strengthen our monitoring and evaluation system. And you know that we have established a unit, the Blue Scorpions and they are on the ground. And they bring back the information and we react to it."

Mike: "The Constitution says this is the job of local government. The constitution also says that local government is an autonomous sphere of government, so DWAF can't just go in and tell them what to do. In electricity, for example, cabinet long ago took the decision that municipalities weren't competent to run electricity. So why are we saying that electricity is too complicated - take it away from them, but the more complicated business of water supply and sanitation is left with these weak and incompetent municipalities?"

Bongani: "People ask: is our drinking water safe? Well that depends who is supplying it. If it's coming from Rand Water out of a world class facility like this, it's about as good as it can get. But it's in the rural areas where facilities like this just don't exist... there, well, you take your chances."

In Witbank few people trust the water coming out of the taps. They trust the municipality even less.

The day we arrived there was sewage flowing into the streets and unhappy municipal workers were sabotaging services because they weren't getting paid overtime.

Koos Gass is losing business as the brown water stains his clients' towels.

Bongani: "All from the water?"

Koos Gass (Business owner): "All from the water."

We paid an impromptu visit to the water works.

Bongani: "Looks like there is no one here... "

The place was deserted. We have since received information from a retired engineer who said he offered to assist the municipality, but they didn't want his help and so he gave up in frustration. He told us that the brown water was a result of the clarifiers and the filters that were not working properly. Currently there is no qualified engineer and very little if any maintenance done. You can't really trust a single water sample, but the one we had analysed indicated good compliance for the health parameters but bad compliance for the operational parameters. So it may not look good, but it's safe to drink. But that is just one sample."

Bongani: "Is our water safe? "

Lindiwe: "I can safely say that the process that we've put in place to look at the quality of water at municipal level, the samples that we take every month across the country have indicated to us that 94% of our municipality water is clean and safe to drink. One thing we want to showcase during 2010 is the quality of drinking water in South Africa. So the few municipalities that are left behind - that 5% - we are going to eliminate it."

A recent Water Research Commission study suggests a different figure to the minister. They say about 50% of small treatment plants are not producing the desired quantity or quality of water and 78% of operators don't have the knowledge to do their jobs.

By contrast, Rand Water supplies some of the best water in the world to 12 million people. From Vereeniging 2800 million litres are pumped daily into reservoirs on the escarpment. They do about a million tests per year, testing for an array of pathogens, pesticides and toxic algae. They are also testing for chemicals that are not visible and that many people have never heard of. They're called endocrine disruptors and they have found their way into South African water.

Bettina Genthe (Health Risk Assessor: Rietvlie Dam Project): "The Eland story is really how the whole study began at the Rietvlei Nature Reserve."

Bettina Genthe is a scientist working at the CSIR. She was the human health risk assessor on a study where a research scientist from the University of Pretoria discovered abnormal testicles on an Eland that had been culled.

Bettina: "And she noticed that the testicles of the eland had been totally calcified. And they actually described it like being, 'a bag of bones that could shake around' and it was something that they then started saying: 'What caused this - what pollution is here that's had such an effect on the eland?'"

Present in the Rietvlei reserve were pesticides, hormones and heavy metals - all endocrine disruptors. The WRC study went on to discover that almost half the mice had low sperm counts, 12% had no sperm at all, the penile sheath length in the snails was shorter and there were female sex cells inside the testes of the barbel.

Bongani: "Now, is this limited to Rietvlei or is it widespread?"

Bettina: "It's not just limited to Rietvlie, but the study was. What we found was that there was almost no single area where these chemicals didn't take place."

The study revealed cancer risks if the water was used for irrigation, but the drinking water risk was low - that was due largely to the sophisticated treatment that the water underwent through the filters at the Rietvlei water purification plant.

Bettina: "I know that at Rietvlei they have activated carbon, and that is one of the most effective ways of removing the endocrine disruptors."

Irrigation is under the spotlight at Stellenbosch University. Here a five year study is underway to establish exactly which pathogens end up on the fruit and vegetables that you eat. Dr Gunnar Sigge is at the helm.

Bongani: "Should we be worried about our water?"

Dr Gunnar Sigge (Project Manager - WRC Project): "The fact that we are doing the research is because we are worried about the state of our rivers. We're worried, that's why we're doing this research to try and get to the bottom of where it's coming from, what it is and what the risks are."

Assisting with the study is Dr Jo Barnes - an unpopular messenger who has spent hours in her waders sampling these rivers. This soft spoken epidemiologist from Stellenbosch is not afraid to deliver hard truths.

Dr Jo Barnes (Faculty of Health Sciences, US): "I don't always think that when people pronounce drinking water safe that they look at the whole spectrum of things that may be there. So I'm also starting to be concerned that the way we pronounce water clean is not keeping up with what's really there... the more hardy things..."

Dr Barnes has written many papers on the health risks associated with our filthy rivers.

Dr Barnes: "I have found a full range of pathogens in water like that, many bacteria, skin diseases, respiratory diseases, kidney diseases, ear infections... organisms for all of those and of course the whole family of diarrhoeas. So this is not at all ideal water to irrigate on edible produce."

And her outspoken comments haven't won her many friends in the fresh produce industry.

Dr Barnes: "I have been put under severe pressure not to mention too much of the problems regarding fresh produce."

Bongani: "You've been put under pressure not to speak up?"

Dr Barnes: "Yes."

Bongani: "In what ways?"

Dr Barnes: "In many ways; some subtle some very direct. But anyway I am still here - nevertheless I am still here saying the same things and that is that denial... As the clock ticks, the problem gets bigger."

And the clock is ticking... if government wants to showcase our water in 2010, we will need to clean up our act or we may just find ourselves warning our visitors to stay out of the rivers and avoid the tap water in our small towns.

Carte Blanche H20 Article provided as published here..

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