Why we, the citizens, need to test our water resources

Why we, the citizens, need to test our water resources

The state of SA’s water should be raising alarm bells, but the lack of transparency and reliable data drowns out the facts.

Image: Ground Up

“The amount of sewage and effluent spillages into canals and waterways across the country should be raising alarm bells everywhere, but because citizens have poor access to information and data, the country is – sometimes literally – swimming in a sea of polluted water,” says Dr. Ferrial Adam, environmental activist and manager of WaterCAN.

WaterCAN, an OUTA initiative, condemns the secrecy and lack of reporting on the quality of our water countrywide. “We are therefore calling on local government and water boards for water testing results to be made public, and for more activist ‘citizen scientists’ to get involved in monitoring and reporting on the state of our water. By citizen scientists we mean anybody who is passionate about protecting our country’s water resources – you don’t have to be an actual scientist to help WaterCAN with this.”

According to Adam, WaterCAN has been witnessing a general lack of transparency and openness by local governments across the country when it comes to the actual laboratory results for water testing. “We can give you many examples, ranging from Milnerton in the Western Cape to the Vaal in Gauteng to eThekwini in KZN. This is a countrywide challenge, underlining the fact that South Africans need to get involved as guardians of water, even in what is considered to be well run metros.”

The eThekwini municipality has been accused of a lack of transparency and hiding its Durban beach water lab results. This despite the fact that the problem has been ongoing for more than a year, even resulting in the municipality having to close its central beaches due to the high levels of E.coli in the water in December 2021. The floods in April 2022 made matters a lot worse. “The organisation Adopt-a-River has questioned the city’s results posted at beaches and have repeatedly asked for the lab results, but without success. Yet, obtaining these results is in the interest of every eThekwini resident.”

WaterCAN’s list of municipalities refusing to share water results with residents, also includes Phalaborwa. “There, raw sewage runs down the streets into the town’s open public spaces and streams. People do not have any idea what the quality of the water in the area is.”

Not even the residents in bigger metros dare relax about their water sources, says Adam. “The residents of Nelson Mandela Bay were told in February 2022 that the water is not safe for human consumption and it must be boiled before drinking it. Similarly in Buffalo City, also in the Eastern Cape, a boil water notice was issued to residents. In Milnerton, Cape Town, residents are struggling to breathe as the stench from sewerage spillage continues to be a challenge. The Vaal dam is not only being polluted by failing infrastructure but also by companies like Sasol who have knowingly been spewing poisonous substances such as vanadium, diethanolamine and potassium carbonate into the river.”

According to Adam, the common thread in all these cases is that the water is clearly not fit for human consumption, but people don’t really know how bad the situation is because the results are not being made public or made accessible to ordinary people. “We need to demand transparency on the quality of our water – we have a right to feel confident about the water that we are consuming. Things will only change when we have a groundswell of people to stand up and become active citizens,” Adam said.

WaterCAN will be embarking on a nationwide campaign testing water from various water sources around the country from 14-18 September 2022. More than 100 people around the country will be testing the quality of water from taps, rivers and streams. “We want to develop an open-source accessible data set on water through activist citizen science, and the results will be made public.”

“The ultimate intention of the WaterCAN program is to drive water quality testing by individuals, water forums and community organisations to demand transparency on water quality – this is the only way we can hold polluters accountable. This role is normally a function of the state but it has been significantly neglected.”

WaterCAN distributed 100 free water testing kits countrywide but says even people who do not have a testing kit can still join the campaign. “We are encouraging everyone to report about the state of our water – let us know via tweets with pictures and descriptions of your tap water and the rivers and streams in your area. Your environmental observations are important and the first part of any assessment. Help us build a citizen science activist movement to protect our precious resource, we are running out of time.”

You can tweet your environmental observations to @WaterCANsa. Include the hashtag #whatamidrinking.

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Soundclip from Dr Ferrial Adam available here.

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