NOTICE | Janet Simpkins: If We Protect Our Water, We Protect Our Future
South Africa’s rivers are a vital part of the ecosystem, providing water for drinking and irrigating crops. We can’t let them deteriorate and fall apart, writes Janet Simpkins.
Take a package of hamburger stained with tomato and mustard sauce that has been lying around in the dirty gutter for several days. Crumple it up and put it in a glass. Fill this glass with water. Now drink it. Disgusting, isn’t it?
So why are we doing the same – and worse – with our scarce and precious water resources? We dump raw sewage into rivers and extract the same water; we throw garbage through the windows of our cars which ends up in the storm sewers which empty into the rivers and the sea; not to mention the amount of illegal landfills which are spiraling out of control in towns and villages, we use harmful chemicals, dumped paints and oils in our household sewers that go straight to overcrowded water treatment plants. .
With the current focus on climate and the recent COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, it’s worth thinking about how we treat our water – arguably the most natural resource. important that we have.
In KwaZulu-Natal alone, there have been shocking industrial spills that sent shockwaves reverberating through ecosystems and making it incredibly difficult to respond to restore the natural environment. Two recent examples illustrate how we treat our water resources on a large scale. In 2020, oil leaked from a Transnet pipeline into the Umbilo River, through local communities and a nature reserve, and eventually into the port of Durban. In July 2021, during unrest and looting near Durban, UPL Cornubia’s chemical plant was set on fire, causing a large quantity of toxic chemicals to leak into the sea just north of Durban. Earlier in 2019, a spill of 1.6 million liters of vegetable oil and caustic soda from Willowton Oils in Pietermaritzburg into the Msunduzi River caused irreparable damage to the river ecosystem.
Maybe we think that once the water is filtered and sent through a tap, the pollution problem is solved. If it once was, it is certainly not true now.
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The Department of Water and Sanitation’s latest “Blue Drop” report on water quality from SA’s taps was released in 2014. The shutdown is widely believed to reflect a situation too dire to document . According to the department’s “National Master Plan for Water and Sanitation Volume 1”, published in 2019, SA is facing a water crisis resulting from insufficient maintenance and investment in infrastructure , recurring drought, deteriorating water quality and a shortage of qualified engineers. The report states that more than half of South Africa’s 1,150 municipal wastewater treatment plants (WWTWs) and around 44% of the 962 treatment plants were in poor or critical condition. About 11% of this infrastructure was “completely dysfunctional”. The widespread and nationwide failure of pumping stations and WWTW across the country is evident in the large number of polluted streams, dams, rivers and wetlands that we know of.
âBetween 1999 and 2011, the extent of South Africa’s major rivers classified as having poor ecological status increased by 500%, with some rivers past the point of recovery,â the report said.
South Africa’s rivers are a vital part of the ecosystem, providing water for drinking and irrigating crops. We cannot let them deteriorate and collapse. It’s worth taking a few minutes to think about what this gradual deterioration is costing us, not only through a dirty and unattractive environment and higher cleaning costs, but also our personal health.
According to the Ocean Conservancy, which hosts the annual International Coastal Cleanup Day, between 24 and 35 metric tons of plastics entered global aquatic systems in 2020 and about 60% of fish studied globally contained microplastics.
Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic that are found in the environment when consumer and industrial plastics break down. In 2020, they were found in human placentas for the first time. They literally filter through every aspect of the food chain.
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On September 18, Adopt-A-River, in collaboration with other organizations, organized an ocean clean-up at the mouth of the uMngeni River to coincide with International Coastal Cleanup Day. There is a constant flow of plastic waste throughout the year. With the help of sponsorship, Adopt-A-River regularly cleans the mouth of the uMngeni River and the surrounding area, removing approximately 1,000 bags of garbage per month. On that day alone, 156 volunteers collected over 1.2 tonnes of garbage, mostly plastic, in just two hours! So imagine how much worse the situation is when it is multiplied by 365 days a year on all of South Africa’s major rivers. Solving this crisis will take a lot of money and effort.
Legislation needs to change and big companies need to start taking serious responsibility for the waste they generate. It can seem overwhelming to the average person. But one of the steps that everyone can take is to start treating our rivers and oceans with more respect.
Changing habits at home
We can all help clean our rivers and oceans. It’s just a matter of changing some of our habits at home. Remember that corrosive chemicals released into your sinks and drains will need to be treated with more chemicals in wastewater treatment plants. If possible, avoid using plastic bags. Fruits and vegetables do not need to be wrapped in single-use plastic. Sort your waste and make sure the recyclable items get to a reputable recycler. Help with cleanups in your area or, if time is of the essence, donate to causes that support a cleaner environment. In the middle of this year’s COP 26 conference, Lewis Pugh, the endurance swimmer who has dedicated himself to a campaign to clean up the world’s oceans, tweeted: âFor most of history we have had to fight against nature to survive. To survive, we must now protect nature. “
– Janet Simpkins is the Director of Adopt-a-River, a registered non-profit organization working in the river and environmental field. Based primarily in KZN, Adopt-a-River focuses on community solutions to river health issues.
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