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South Africa's water security crisis past the eleventh hour

Since March, this year, it has taken the trade union UASA three well-publicized, high-level seminars, an authoritative impact study, numerous meetings and a Section 77 application at Nedlac to bring home the message that South Africa is facing a gigantic water crisis. (The next meeting about the matter at Nedlac will take place either on 1 or 2 December 2010, when government, organized business and organized labour will be obliged to continue their discussions in terms of Section 77 of the Labour Relations Act.)

UASA’s water security crusade, labelled H2O 4 Life, has awakened government, organised business and other stakeholders to the harsh reality that acid mine drainage (AMD) and the dumping of sewage and industrial pollutants into our precious and meagre sources of fresh water are threatening the entire country in a wide variety of fields. The pressure brought about by inter alia UASA’s crusade began to pay off at the beginning of August when a deputy director at the department of Water Affairs, Marius Keet, acknowledged to a parliamentary portfolio committee the existence of the crisis – thus imposing departmental responsibility on Government by implication.

A couple of weeks hence, Cabinet appointed an interministerial task team to investigate the matter and to come forward with recommendations. The task team’s report was scheduled to be tabled on 15 October, but yet another month went by with absolutely no indication of any report.

It was reported in the printed media yesterday that experts and government departments are now scrambling to consider proposals to counter the threat in time and avert a catastrophe, especially as far as acid mine drainage (AMD) is concerned. We're past the eleventh hour already and if urgent measures aren't taken immediately, it will result in reactive rather than proactive measures – trying to limit the damage instead of preventing it.

UASA publicly reported at the end of the first quarter of 2010 that solutions to the problems were available and that urgent steps needed to be taken by the government departments concerned. Unfortunately, red-tape and interdepartmental bureaucracy seem to have been major stumbling blocks since then.

Some experts say it is already too late to prevent the rising acid mine water from starting to decant in the heart of Boksburg, in February 2012, at a rate of 57-million litres a day. It is estimated that acid mine drainage will reach the Environmentally Critically Level underneath Central Johannesburg at the same time, causing irreparable damage.

Adding insult to injury is the predicted critical shortage of potable water in Gauteng by 2015 as a result of AMD ending up in the Vaal River Barrage. Currently, the sulphates and phosphates from AMD and industrial effluent are causing the salination of water in the Barrage to the tune of more than 27 000 tons of salt per day, which is already in an advanced stage of salinising the entire system downstream of the Vaal Dam to the extent that the water will be totally useless for any purpose in less than five years – unless, of course, immediate action is taken by government to implement preventive measures as a matter of national priority. Should it become necessary to desalinate water in the Barrage area, we could see water tariffs sky-rocketing by an estimated 40%. As it is, some 15 coal mines in the catchment area of the Vaal Dam are already seriously polluting the water in the dam, to which the authorities seem to be turning a blind eye.

With 98% of all South Africa's available fresh water already being utilised, it is of critical importance that the remaining 2% is protected and conserved.

Time is obviously of the essence. UASA trusts that the report with proposals by a task team of experts, which is due to be presented to the directors general of mineral resources and water affairs by Friday, this week, won't be unnecessarily delayed when presented afterwards to an interministerial committee for consideration.

The result of further delays are too ghastly to contemplate.