It comes as no surprise to learn that added to our drought and water shortage problems, water quality in South Africa continues to decline. Five years ago, Anthony Turton - a highly qualified water scientist at the CSIR, was forced to resign for daring to even suggest that we were facing a crisis of humanitarian proportions in this country and that government had to take serious steps to address water management and increasing water pollution.
Collapsing infrastructure at local government level, coupled with increased pollution from the manufacturing and industrial sectors, is creating a toxic 'soup’ in many of our water catchment facilities countrywide. In recent days, we have become aware of the dire health impacts in water at the Hartbeespoort Dam - a major storage and irrigation facility north of the Capital. So bad is this problem, that agricultural products being grown downstream of the dam have been banned by three of the largest retailers in the country for their high risk levels associated with effluent, pollution and chemicals. The tobacco industry - once a thriving and income generating sector downstream of the dam, has all-but collapsed as a result of these problems, and soon, even the market gardens and large food producing farms in the region will begin to feel the economic impacts of bad water.
But in spite of this, government insists that our drinking water is 'world class’ and that there is no crisis. They are probably right, but if one considers that less than half of all South Africans receive treated drinking water from Rand Water or their equivalent suppliers across the country, while the rest are forced to make do with what they can get from local streams, rivers and dams. This is no longer simply a question of being able to buy ourselves out of the crisis - it is becoming a socio-economic time bomb for society in general.
The problem is not governments' alone. As South Africans, we tend to treat water as a never-ending resource, casting our waste into rivers, streams and dams with gay abandon. We are regarded as one of the most over-medicated countries in the world, and we continue to flush unused or dated medication into the sewer system with complete calm. Cigarette butts are simply dropped where we stand, while household chemicals and poisons are used with little or no awareness fo their downstream impacts. Our manufacturing sector goes about dumping hundreds of tons of toxic waste into our waterways on a daily basis - safe in the knowledge that the risk of being caught is outweighed by the profits they can make. We are the problem - government is simply the willing co-conspirator, and unless we as a society start taking responsibility for protecting water and minimising both our wasteful consumption and pollution, we will be the ones that suffer from the madness we create.
Humans are unique in nature in that we are the only species that will knowingly destroy the very environment on which we depend. The signs are all there, yet we choose to react and become concerned at the very tipping-point of disaster each time. Soon, in our blind greed and indifference, we will fail to see that point in time, and we will pay the consequences in ways that are hard to comprehend.