Anthony Turton: A tsunami of human waste is flooding our rivers and dams, and it’s a safety concern

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The outbreak of typhoid in parts of the country highlights the problem of our failing sewage infrastructure. We can no longer simply accept that incompetent politicians can fight their way through a growing crisis, writes Antoine Tourton.


Recent news has been dominated by so much that the noise has drowned out an important signal. This small signal is the announcement by the NICD that typhoid has been identified in certain parts of the country, so the prudent approach is to boil the water coming from the taps.

While this is an important development, it needs to be put into context. For starters, the NICD is a credible institution, so anything they say should be taken seriously. This question clearly emphasizes three critical factors. Let’s unbox each of them in order to get a bigger perspective.

The issue of trust

The first is the issue of trust.

It is a worldwide phenomenon, particularly associated with social media, which has theoretically allowed every person access to all of our cumulative knowledge as a species on top of planet Earth. In an instant, everyone has the ability to become an expert on a given subject.

We have seen this play out in the Covid-19 space, especially when the effectiveness of the vaccination program has been called into question. While it’s great that so much information is instantly available to everyone, it’s also a problem because unless the individual is trained to filter out the noise, they quickly become overloaded with things that bother them. cause panic.

In South Africa, this has an added dimension, prompted by the findings of the Zondo Commission, which generally point to a serious trust deficit between the government and the general public.

READ | OPINION: Yanga Malotana – The Zondo Commission report is only the beginning of restoring confidence in South African democracy

Seen in this light, it is highly likely that the typhoid problem will fall directly into this chasm of trust and serve to widen it even further. This must be handled in our collective best interest, because panic does not serve anyone constructively. Therefore, the first part of my main message is that we must avoid the urge to become instant experts by deferring scientific facts to scientific professionals. Unfortunately, science has fallen victim to this trust deficit, so my voice could get lost in the storm of discontent.

The problem of deteriorating water quality

The second is the problem of deteriorating water quality.

In this regard, we are on absolutely solid ground because we know – without fear of being contradicted – that the quality of our water has been on a downward trajectory for some time. If we’re looking for a pivotal moment, we might consider the acid mine drainage settling that first came to public attention in 2002.

Amid a wave of activism and a media frenzy, we have the sad reality, two decades later, that absolutely nothing has been done about it.

Highly acidic mine water, rich in a dissolved cocktail of metals including uranium, arsenic, cadmium and mercury, continued to flow into our rivers and dams in mining areas across the country. But more importantly, we have also witnessed the systematic collapse of our wastewater treatment infrastructure, which has accelerated over the past decade; this is best illustrated by SANDF’s unsuccessful attempt to prevent the flow of raw sewage into the Vaal River at Emfuleni.

Two billion rand later, we are no closer today to finding a solution than ten years ago. The numbers are staggering. As a nation, we produce more than five billion liters of raw sewage every day. The latest credible calculation of this flow indicated that approximately 4.2 billion liters were dumped into our rivers daily in an untreated form. This represents a tsunami of human waste flooding our rivers and dams, relentlessly, for more than a decade.

READ | Discharge of raw sewage into Vaal River a violation of human rights, SAHRC rules say

This is probably our biggest challenge as a nation.

In my professional opinion, this is a matter of national security, as it has a negative impact on the daily life of every citizen. It destroys the economy from within by damaging the health of the individual, without them even knowing it.

You see, in the wastewater, the return streams, we find all the substances that are distributed in the retail sector. Think of the pharmaceutical industry. Imagine how many drugs are sold every day by large pharmacies in the country. Every item sold ends up in the wastewater in a partially metabolized form. These include antibiotics, antiretrovirals, antidepressants, estrogen used for contraception, and Viagra used to keep an aging population happy. So we have to think of the wastewater dumped into our rivers and dams as thousands of tons of drugs, still viable even in their partially metabolized form, to which we expose billions of pathogenic microbes that bloom in the hot nutrient. rich waters.

Think of it as a training camp for microbes, as the lazy and weak are destroyed by the low concentration of antibiotics, leaving only the strong to flourish. In short, our boot camp for microbes is producing the next generation of multidrug-resistant pathogens.

It is happening before our eyes. Just think about it logically and come to your own conclusion if you choose to distrust science for your own reasons. Does it make sense to allow over four billion liters of wastewater to be discharged daily into our rivers and dams, without anticipating some form of unintended consequence?

Our ability to cope as a nation

The third is the question of our ability to cope as a nation.

This is where it gets really interesting, because just as we face multiple risks to our economic well-being – Covid-19, unemployment, capital flight, energy crisis, corruption, to name a few. a few – we also need to be on top of our game when it comes to finding solutions.

We can say, with a high level of confidence, that our ability to reach consensus on how to solve the complex issues we face is likely at an all-time low (and deteriorating). In fact, we can say that there is an inverse relationship between our need to find consensus on a viable path forward and our ability to generate the very consensus on which our survival as a species depends. It sounds a bit dramatic, but I use it to illustrate that on a global scale, our ability to unite in the face of one common threat – climate change – is being eroded by many forces. These include the lack of trust in government (point one noted above), growing mistrust of science (exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and manifest as social rejection of anti- vaxxers and climate change deniers), and the heightened sense of helplessness that everyone faces.

READ | IN DEPTH: Typhoid fever outbreak in South Africa – a disaster predicted in 2008, expert says

All of these are manifested in the problem of typhoid. Although typhoid is clearly a bad thing, we need to put it into context. Just as the Covid problem has shown us, the deaths are relatively few, and while tragic for the individual families affected, viewed through the lens of logic and reason, it is no spectacle.

What it does is highlight the problem of our failing sewage infrastructure. We can no longer simply accept that incompetent politicians can fight their way through a growing crisis. We have to hold them accountable. We must convert the growing feeling of rage into the high octane rocket fuel of change.

We have to say enough is enough.

Now is the time to demand that technically competent people be appointed to specialized positions and then held fully accountable. We need to depoliticize the deployment of cadres, because this policy has brought us the failing infrastructure we see in Eskom, PRASA, municipal sewage systems and many other failing public enterprises.

In the face of the typhoid epidemic, we must renew our faith in science and wake up and smell the coffee realizing that we cannot just dump billions of gallons of acid mine water and raw sewage into our rivers and dams, without suffering unforeseen consequences. . These consequences could be deadly.

– Professor Anthony Turton is an Affiliate Professor at the Center for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State (UFS). He specializes in strategic planning, transboundary water resources management, political and institutional issues, conflict resolution (mitigation), political risk assessment for major infrastructure projects and research program design. . He is also a director of Nanodyn Systems Pty Ltd.


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