Warning that the current cholera outbreak was both avoidable and symptomatic of a nationwide collapse of water treatment facilities, a group of 15 senior academic experts has urged the government to implement a series of urgent measures – including the takeover of dysfunctional municipal treatment works and criminal prosecution of inept officials.
The call to action comes from the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage), which comprises researchers from five universities, the SA Medical Research Council, the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and the Institute of Natural Resources.
The advisory group issued a set of detailed recommendations on 7 June and urged the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and other government agencies to implement them immediately if the country was to avoid multiple health and environmental emergencies.
The group’s subcommittee on water security and water quality said it acknowledged that the source of Hammanskraal’s deadly cholera outbreak was yet to be established, but “Sage takes the position that several factors have likely contributed to the outbreak, including dysfunctional wastewater treatment facilities”.
“Sage is of the opinion that the loss of lives to cholera in Hammanskraal was avoidable and is symptomatic of a widening collapse of water treatment facilities, countrywide. Left unchecked, such an unfolding collapse could precipitate multiple concurrent health and environmental emergencies.”
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It recommended a comprehensive series of actions, including putting the brakes on shoddy billing systems and debt collection by municipalities that were “fuelling runaway debt to water boards” – in turn contributing to systemic failures and dysfunction in wastewater facilities.
“Sage thus endorses DWS proposals to introduce standardised credit control and debt recovery measures across all water boards and water trading entities.”
The group suggested that due to a relatively limited budget to tackle the scale of the problem, the DWS should prioritise the urgent remediation of dysfunctional and failing wastewater treatment plants, nationally.
The DWS and other government agencies should also engage water boards on a variety of issues ranging from technical staff competency to finances.
The national water department should also develop specially tailored public awareness campaigns to “instil a sense of deep reverence for water”, and also commit irrevocably to publishing the annual Blue Drop reports in the interests of public health, accountability and transparency.
Other departments should also continue driving technological change aimed at using less water, including low-flush and other water-saving toilets.
Where necessary, the DWS should take over the water and sanitation function of dysfunctional water service providers and consider amending the National Water Act to empower the water department to take over technical, revenue collection and other functions where there is a consistent failure by a water service provider to provide the required service.
Crucially, the national department should commit to “accountability”.
Non-compliant officials should be subject to consequence management, including disciplinary action, fines, and, where applicable, criminal charges.
The 15 academics who made the recommendations are Prof Jerome Singh (ASSAf); Dr Renee Street and Sizwe Nkambule of the SA Medical Research Council; Dr Sershen Naidoo (Institute of Natural Resources); Dr Keagan Pokpas, Dr Thokozani Kanyerere, Prof Leslie Petrik, Prof Dominic Mazvimavi, Dr Sumaya Clarke and Prof Nebo Jovanovic (University of the Western Cape); Dr Patricks Otomo and Prof Aliza Le Roux (University of the Free State); Dr David Ikumi (University of Cape Town); Dr Marizvikuru Manjoro (University of Venda) and Prof Craig Sheridan (Wits University).
Sage recommendations follow recent similar concerns by University of the Free State water security expert Prof Anthony Turton. Fifteen years ago, the CSIR cancelled his keynote speech in which he warned that South Africa’s water problems would soon eclipse the country’s then emerging electricity crisis.
Meanwhile, the civil society WaterCAN group said on 7 June: “The extremely high level of failure of the country’s various water service authorities and water service providers to supply the national water department with timely data on the state of their water resources is precisely the type of inaction that will lead to water-borne disease outbreaks becoming endemic.
“WaterCAN believes that if this high level of non-compliance is left unchecked, water-borne disease outbreaks, such as the deadly cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal and now reported in five provinces, will increase and possibly become endemic.”
It was commenting on the release earlier this week of the Blue Drop Watch, Green Drop Watch and the long-awaited No Drop Watch.
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“The reports show the horrifying state of South Africa’s drinking water and sewerage systems and the apparent acceptance of this situation by water service authorities and water service providers. These are mostly municipalities but also include water boards.
“The statistics in these reports are not new; they do not give us an updated or informed view of any progress or decline. However, these reports are a way for the DWS to show its intent on compliance and highlight the extent of non-compliance by water service authorities,” said Dr Ferrial Adam, executive manager of WaterCAN.
“WaterCAN welcomes the directives and the criminal charges against municipalities. But we want to see them go a little further: charge the people responsible, fire the people responsible, including municipal managers and mayors,” said Adam. DM
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