A combination of polluted water sources and poor management of dams, sewerage works and treatment plants has led to a situation where our water supply is under serious threat.
Water sources: Poor management of informal settlements. With inadequate sewerage systems in place, and little provision for the removal of waste, large quantities of waste are washed into rivers, where they make their way to overburdened water purification plants.
Management of dams: As the quality of the water from our water sources deteriorates, it becomes more complex and more expensive to purify this water to make it safe for drinking. For example, the City of Cape Town is spending R400 000 a month more than it should on treating water from the Voelvlei dam alone because of the high level of pollutants in the water.
To compound this problem, the water treatment plants themselves, and the pipes that deliver clean water to our cities and towns, are old and dilapidated. Most municipal sewerage systems in South Africa are 30 to 50 years old. But few councils are doing anything more than band-aid maintenance. There are many examples of the consequences of this. I will mention poor maintenance of municipal water and sewerage systems
This dire situation has been obvious for several years and has been made known to the DWAF through various reports that have been presented to it. Despite all of this evidence, however, the problem remains.
A further complication is that councils have been under enormous pressure to expand water and sewerage infrastructure to service previously under-serviced areas. This has added to the burden on existing infrastructure. In 2003 the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry warned about the consequences of rolling out new water projects without setting aside enough money to maintain the existing facilities. But the political pressure to deliver has often caused this problem to be ignored. The national government has also not prioritised it adequately. While it estimates that R180bn would be needed for a complete overhaul of the system, it allocated only R1bn – less than one percent of what is needed – this year.
The government needs to consider adapting the principles applied in this project to our own circumstances. With regard to farmers, for example, the objective would be to develop Whole Farm Plans, with farmers and environment officials identifying any potential pollutants and reviewing the options available to tackle them. Similar plans would be developed with other parties with the ultimate objective being the elimination or substantial reduction of water pollution.
Secondly, many of the reserves where our water originates are fragmented and are poorly managed from a water retention point of view. For example, at least 200 000 ha of mountainous land in the Western Cape is set out for protection under the Mountain Catchment Areas Act. But since the declaration of this Act in 1972 not a single regulation has been proclaimed to manage these areas.