Citizen action is the key to rescuing South Africa’s failing water and sanitation systems
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the many failures of the government, particularly when faced with the collapse of water and sanitation systems. But when the government fails to protect precious resources like water, the public can help by being the eyes and ears needed to help monitor and collect the evidence to support action. – Featured in Daily Maverick
Water pollution in South Africa is so dire that it needs to be declared a state of national disaster to encourage a focused and urgent response.
Daily there are billions of litres of industrial and pharmaceutical wastewater, mining waste and poorly treated or entirely untreated sewage that flows into rivers, dams and oceans. Day Zero is a reality for many towns and cities in South Africa, not only because they are running out of water, but also because the water that they do have is polluted.
Although the problem seems insurmountable, there are some actions that we can take to push for cleaner, safer and more accessible water for all in the short to medium term.
Let’s get the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) working — push for the arrest and charging of perpetrators, for open and transparent management of water resources and funds, and encourage the public and water guardians to be the eyes and ears we need in the absence of functioning government monitoring.
The DWS recently admitted in a statement that one of the main sources of domestic and river pollution stems from municipal wastewater treatment works, sewer blockages, poor operations and maintenance. While this article focuses on sewage pollution, this does not imply that pollution from industry and mining is any less important. They also pose huge challenges to our water resources and some of the solutions suggested here could also apply to these sectors.
Millions of people are having to deal with the effects of sewage spills in rivers, oceans, dams or in their streets and residential areas. It is no longer shocking or surprising that 56% of the country’s 1,150 wastewater treatment plants are in poor or critical condition, and that 75% of 910 municipal wastewater treatment works achieved less than 50% compliance with minimum effluent standards last year, as Daily Maverick reported a year ago.
Government is aware of this but has been slow to implement a plan of action.
One of the key factors that contributes to poor water quantity and quality is the failure of local government. When local governments fail, there is a direct effect on service delivery such as electricity, water and sewerage. The examples are numerous.
The Vaal River system that provides water to almost 17 million South Africans is completely polluted by sewage. A Human Rights Commission investigation noted in its 2021 report that the Emfuleni local municipality was wholly responsible for the sewage pollution that emanated from the wastewater treatment works.
While water utility Rand Water is contracted by the national DWS to “fix” the issues, the buck must stop with the government. The funding given to Emfuleni must be made transparent so that the spending and the projects can be tracked.
In Cape Town, millions of litres of almost untreated sewage is being pumped into its rivers and the ocean, resulting in some areas being overcome by the stink. Nelson Mandela Bay metro recently declared its drinking water unsafe and asked people to boil their water. There are countless examples of sewage flowing through the streets in many towns and cities.
It is clear that no one sector can solve this problem alone; there has to be a collective and urgent response to finding solutions to the challenges we face. We need to put pressure on the government to clean up at a local and national department level. As water guardians and activists, this could mean anything from letters to the media to expose corrupt and inefficient service, to protests and demonstrations, to people testing water to verify government data.
At a national government level, there can no longer be a hands-off approach to holding local government officials accountable. After years of poor action, there seems to be some movement as the department has been filling long-standing vacancies as well as taking disciplinary action against 168 employees — but unfortunately, there are still too few prosecutions.
As a start, DWS must be part of ensuring that local governments have sufficient technical skills and expertise as well as providing municipalities with sufficient assistance in financial management capacity. Where pollution is a result of negligence, consequence management should be considered, as pollution is deemed a criminal offence under national water legislation. As ordinary citizens, we want to see people paying the price for polluting — whether this is through jail or fines. There must be better enforcement of laws and legislation.
One way that this could be done is for DWS to increase the number of environmental management inspectorates to build a strong Blue Scorpions unit that has the same power to investigate, administer and enforce as the Green Scorpions, but focused on water. The Green Scorpions — or environmental management inspectors (EMIs) — fall under the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment. There are more than 3,000 across the different spheres of government who have the powers to investigate, enforce, issue compliance notices and directives.
The equivalent structure to deal with water is commonly known as the Blue Scorpions. The Blue Scorpions is the core regulatory component within the DWS that was set up to ensure the protection of all water resources in the country, as well as the enforcement of all water and sanitation laws and regulations.
Compared to the 3,000 Green Scorpions, there are fewer than 30 Blue Scorpions.
It is hard not to conclude that water-related offences are not acknowledged as serious crimes. Evidence suggests that people would rather break the law, as the fines are not high enough to deter people, but are a mere slap on the wrist. Polluters must realise that they cannot continue to act with impunity.
There needs to be an open, trusted and transparent approach to managing water resources that includes publishing regular Blue and Green Drop reports. Earlier this year, the DWS told the Portfolio Committee on Water and Sanitation that 998 waste retrieval projects had been audited and that Green Drop reports on these would be released in March 2022.
In this regard, it is good news that the DWS will be releasing the reports on wastewater quality — but we wait to hear about the release of the Blue Drop reports (drinking water quality). Both reports were abandoned about six years ago by then minister Nomvula Mokonyane because the reports exposed the dire state of water management by the government.
We know there are problems, but we must stop hiding from them and fix them.
Let’s tap into private sector skills to turn around dysfunctional municipal water and sanitation systems. There are many retired engineers, technicians and plumbers who should be called on to volunteer and share their knowledge and experience to build local capacity and skills.
The examples of people coming together to fix their towns are growing, as seen in Harrismith, Delmas and Senekal. In some cases, people had to go to court to be allowed to fix their towns because of local government policies. This must be reviewed to encourage activism and volunteerism.
There is a growing number of activist citizen science groups and water warriors across the country who can act as watchdogs and contribute to protecting and monitoring the quality of our water resources.
A new initiative by the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse called WaterCAN has been established to build a network of citizen scientists, develop a central portal for water data and build national collaboration to hold authorities to account where necessary. The key pillars of WaterCAN are research, citizen science, advocacy and, where needed, litigation.
In the areas where water quality standards in both rivers and drinking systems do not meet standards, a prescribed and coordinated process will be developed and followed to have the issue addressed by the relevant authority.
Given the extent of the pollution, it is clear that there will be a need for huge amounts of money to deal with failing infrastructure and lack of skills, but this may be a small investment in relation to the significant consequences we may face if we don’t act now. It is understood that this will take time.
In the interim, let’s arm citizens with a process to go out and test water, share the data and use this information to develop a greater voice and action to ensure that our water decisions are no longer just in the hands of a few.
It is a problem that affects us all and cannot be fixed by just one sector of society.