Conservation & Environmental Matters

from African Wildlife ISSUE 59 No. 2 AUTUMN 2005


by Patrick Dowling

Around the country there is growing awareness of the deteriorating quality of our fresh surface water systems. The reasons for this are both historical and current, involving mining, agriculture, forestry, industry, wastewater treatment and urbanisation pressures. In several regions, WESSA and other NGOs have realised that passive observation of the problem is not enough.

Ignorance – and, in many cases, irresponsible suppression of the facts – is leading to economic and health problems, and environmental degradation. The State of South Africa’s Natural Environment report, released in early April, revealed that 80 per cent of South Africa’s rivers are threatened, with about 30 per cent in a critical condition. This not only bears out local and provincial reports like the Western Cape Spatial Development Framework, but corroborates the disturbing findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which talks in detail of the triggering of “massive blooms of algae in the freshwater and marine environments – a tipping point that can suddenly destroy entire ecosystems”.

A telling point made in the South African report is that: “Our rivers are in a much poorer state than our land ecosystems. This reflects that South Africa is a water-scarce country with multiple demands on limited water resources from urban settlements, agriculture and industry.” It stresses the point that the “fate of our freshwater” depends on integrating it with land-use management.

Herein lies the rub. Mining effluent in the Northern Areas contaminating rivers, polluted estuaries suffering from industrial pipelines in KZN, a proliferation of informal settlements near rivers, and failing wastewater treatment works in the Western Cape and other regions, are all land use-related problems that lead to aquatic system degradation. Various WESSA regional offices and Branches are responding by raising awareness in the media and with municipal authorities. Catalysing forthright commitment to addressing the issues is no easy task, however, and informed outrage is not enough. The system of co-operative governance makes it difficult for a national department like the DWAF to take a non-complying municipality to task or to court.

Another challenge is getting the powerful players – Government, commerce, industry and organised agriculture – to adopt an environmental perspective on what sustainable development is. With the current devil-take-the-hindmost obsession with growth, most of these are happy to interpret it as sustaining economic development at any cost, whether this cost is ecological or social. The shocking state of our rivers threatens to send both these costs sky high. On the one hand, foreign markets get skittish about suppliers falling way below production standards, and on the other the declining health of communities affected by poor water quality puts stress on Government resources and infrastructure.

In the Western Cape, WESSA, in association with epidemiologist Jo Barnes and other concerned people, has begun its own small-scale investigations of selected provincial waterways to provide information about dangerous E.coli counts not always accessible through the authorities. Over recent years these counts have typically been of orders of magnitude higher than those tolerated by international or even national standards. One field trip that took WESSA staff into the Boland between Wellington and Tulbagh to identify likely sites for testing revealed an interesting dimension to the problem – ignorance. Municipal officials in all these small towns were hard-pressed to say where the local wastewater treatment works were, where the landfill sites or informal settlement areas were. Signage to these places was dilapidated or non-existent. It was as if there were a conspiracy not to talk about these “unmentionables”. This silence unfortunately gives consent for the depredations to continue.

Part of WESSA’s campaign to address this global problem nationally must be to ensure that the local basic information about landfill sites, wastewater treatment works, local communities, zoning changes and development proposals is made known and visible locally. Ordinary people will be more likely to put pressure on their local municipalities to change unsustainable trajectories when they know the facts, and WESSA’s efforts will gain more popular momentum.

Patrick Dowling,
WESSA: Western Cape,
P.O. Box 30145,
Tel. (021) 797-1397