Raw sewage polluting South Africa’s drinking water

South Africa's drinking water supplies are threatened by sewage from settlements that lack sanitation draining through to aquifers, a South African delegate to the ongoing World Water Forum in Mexico said.

Although president Thabo Mbeki recently promised basic sanitation for all South African communities by the end of next year, and access to clean drinking water for all by 2010, many communities are still forced to use “bucket toilets”.

The resulting pollution has caused some new water schemes built over the last 10 years to close down, while others are monitored for pollution levels, Eberhard Braune from South Africa’s Department of Water and Forestry said:

“Even in the schemes we’ve put in over the past 10 years to meet those MDGs [Millemnium Development Goals], many we have to watch, [and] some have been taken out of commission because they are polluted.”

“In this regard, the biggest, most widespread problem is definitely domestic, and therefore faecal pollution.”

Groundwater provides 60-90% of the country’s domestic water supply, with much of it coming it from low-yielding aquifers. This aggravates the effects of faecal pollution, Eberhard Braune explained:

“Ground water occurs everywhere in Africa, but its occurrence is old, mainly in hard rock … the yields of these hard-rock formations is usually low to medium.”

“Certain aquifers, such as the dolomitic aquifers in South Africa [and] those below the Zambian capital … these are the prime aquifers. But they are exceptions. The general occurrence are those that are hard-rock based and low-yielding, but they are extremely important.”

A total of 2.6bn people worldwide have no access to basic sanitation, the UN recently reported (see related story). Poor sanitation can cause epidemics of serious diseases like typhoid and cholera, and outbreaks of other water-borne diseases like salmonella and diarrhoea.

Illustrating what this means for South Africa, Eberhard Braune gave the example of a water-borne disease outbreak in the town of Delmas, east of Johannesburg, last year.

The outbreak of typhoid was caused by untreated sewage polluting drinking water, and led to unrest in Delmas last September, with police shooting rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators.

“A small town, but suddenly a major political incident — [the result of] poor land management on a highly-permeable dolomitic aquifer.”

By Goska Romanowicz

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