25 February 2009

SA rivers heavily polluted

Many of South Africa's rivers, especially those passing through urban areas, are deteriorating due to severe pollution which has even lead to the death of some animals.

Many of South Africa's rivers, especially those passing through urban areas, are continuing to deteriorate due to severe pollution, says the Water Research Commission (WRC).

"It's not an encouraging situation," said WRC director for water-linked ecosystems, Steve Mitchell, noting his organisation had been monitoring the health of the country's rivers since 1994. Speaking at the Implementing Environmental Water Allocations (IEWA) conference in Port Elizabeth, he said: "Where we have managed to go back, generally the pattern has been that the river has continued to deteriorate."

Some rivers in urban areas showed "huge deterioration in water quality".

Asked to name the worst-polluted river in the country, he said this was probably the Olifants River, which runs through Mpumalanga. "It continues to deteriorate. The huge numbers of crocodiles that have died are an indication of a long-term build-up [of pollutants].

"The evidence indicates the cause is not a specific pollution incident, but a long-term build-up," he said.

Govt priorities 'not always best long-term'
The second and third-most polluted rivers were the Vaal and Umgeni. Mitchell suggested there was a lack of political will to tackle the problem.

"We are not using all the knowledge we've got. While middle management in government departments is very dedicated to making things work, I sometimes think the priorities decided at Cabinet level are not always the best for the long-term."

More effort was needed to create awareness at all levels of government. "There is a big impact on the economy when the environment doesn't deliver the provisioning services that it should do," he warned.

A senior water affairs official said the department was busy with a study, together with the SA National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), to classify the country's rivers.

"We want to identify certain rivers that should be in a high protection state, versus other rivers that will be your 'working horse' rivers," deputy director general in the directorate resource-directed measures, Barbara Weston, said.

Challenge is now implementation
She added the Vaal was an example of a so-called working horse river. "We are determining the amount of flow that must remain in a river system for the natural functioning of that system. We've got a project that we're doing in conjunction with SANBI to map the whole country's rivers, classifying them."

The first round of this study was now complete, and showed where the "hot spots" were around the country. She said the challenge now was implementation.

"We have done high data-intensive, very expensive studies on various rivers already. The challenge now -- and that's why we're having this conference - is to take the methodologies we have and implement them. We have determined the reserves, and know what they should be. The thing is now, how are we going to make it happen."

On poor water quality in South Africa's rivers, Weston admitted this was "a huge problem", but declined to ascribe it to a single cause, saying there was a combination of contributing factors. These included waste water effluent, run-off water from agriculture, water from mining activities. – (Sapa, February 2009)

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