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Fears of long term damage to SA's water supply as eutrophication strangles rivers and dams | IOL

Written by  Tuesday, 07 July 2020 19:13
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Toxic green algae in the Vaal River is caused by eutrophication, which harms water quality and impacts river life.     Supplied
Toxic green algae in the Vaal River is caused by eutrophication, which harms water quality and impacts river life. Supplied

Article by Sheree Bega

The black, sewage-contaminated water that flows from the Rietspruit into the Loch Vaal is so polluted that even algae struggles to grow in its polluted depths.

“All we get is black sewage sludge in areas where there’s less current,” explains Mike Gaade, who lives on the banks of the Rietspruit in Vanderbijlpark.

But sightings of cyanobacteria blooms of toxic blue-green algae in the main Vaal River, caused by sewage, are becoming more frequent, particularly in summer, he says.

That the Vaal is becoming eutrophic is a real concern, says water scientist Professor Anthony Turton.

Eutrophication causes an overgrowth of algae that harms water quality, reduces oxygen, produces toxins, impacts river and marine life and affects food and human health.

“Once a water body becomes eutrophic and cyanobacteria becomes established, no known method in SA has ever been able to reverse that process,” Turton explains.

SA’s most eutrophic water is in Hartbeespoort Dam - the most studied of all systems. “Despite the very best scientists being unleashed on the problem, we have been unable to restore the system to its previous trophic status. With our current available knowledge, it’s safe to believe the Vaal is now becoming eutrophic and this is going to persist as the the new normal.”

Eutrophication is the “logical outcome” of discharging high levels of phosphates and nitrates into river systems - natural nutrients that drive the production of plant biomass. “Biomass typically takes two forms in SA - the familiar problem of water hyacinth at Hartbeestpoort Dam and the cyanobacteria blooms of blue-green algae that the Vaal is now succumbing to.”

The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has now released its draft inception report for its National Eutrophication Strategy. The strategy, with its 10-year horizon, seeks to provide guidance to the DWS and water sector at large “on strategies to avoid, reduce, mitigate and manage the effects of eutrophication on SA’s water resources”.

It notes that the project was initially started in 2002 and “never completed” but was reinstated last year.

“The issue of eutrophication had not received adequate attention, previously, which could have been one of the reasons the situation exacerbated even more,” reads the report.

The Integrated Water Quality Management (IWQM) Policies and Strategies for SA in 2016 and 2017 "emphasised eutrophication as one of the country’s pressing water-quality challenges, along with salinisation, acid mine drainage, urban pollution and sedimentation”, it states.

Eutrophication, says Turton, is an old problem that has now reached “catastrophic proportions” due mostly to the failure of the DWS in its role as national regulator. “DWS has allowed the Blue and Green Drop Reporting Standard to fall into dysfunction. This has allowed municipalities to act with impunity knowing they will never be sanctioned for non-compliance. The biggest culprit is the 824 wastewater treatment works (sewage plants) we have in every municipality. About 60% of them are now dysfunctional, so they collectively discharge over 5billion litres of sewage into our rivers daily. We draw our drinking water from those same rivers.”

No bulk water provider in the country that takes water from a river and produces potable water uses technology capable of removing the toxic by-product of eutrophic water: microcystin. “This is a potent molecule that is released when the cyanobacteria is distressed. The molecule becomes parts of the water and cannot be filtered out from the water.

“This means that South African citizens will increasingly be exposed to microcystin as long as our wastewater plants continue to fail.

“Eutrophication is a slow onset disaster that will plague SA for the next generation. The manifestation will increasingly be in the form of low dose but long-term exposure to microcystin. The coronavirus has merely added a new complication, because of the potential for faecal-oral transmission through contaminated rivers.”

Satellite work by the CSIR has already revealed that 60% of the country’s dams are eutrophic.


Sightings of blue-green algae, caused by sewage, is becoming more frequent, especially in summer. Supplied

In his 2015 paper, “Living with Eutrophication in SA: A review of realities and challenges”, scientist William Harding noted how the socio-economic well-being of SA is largely dependent on reservoir lakes, with between 41% and 76% of total storage eutrophic or hypertrophic.

“This is in stark contrast to a claimed 5% made by the DWS. Data and information on the incidence and toxicity of cyanobacterial blooms are sparse, yet severe problems exist The most seriously impacted reservoirs are located in the economic heartland of SA, which has an extant regional water-quality crisis.”

Many of SA’s rivers, reservoirs, and coastal lakes “no longer have the resilience to assimilate nutrients or sequestrate toxicants”, the paper found.

“The responsible agency (DWS) urgently needs to establish a reservoir management programme that embraces remaining individual and institutional memory, integrates all available knowledge and scientific findings, prioritises needs and acquires those skills and resources necessary to meet what is likely to become a crippling legacy of inaction.”

Eutrophication is a “big challenge and the situation is worsening”, says CSIR senior researcher Dr Melusi Thwala, who studies emerging environmental pollutants and water quality. “However, it is mostly dams/large impoundments that have historically faced such a challenge because they act as reservoirs in which pollutants such as nutrients can accumulate over time.

“For instance, in excess of 40% of approximately 500 large impoundments are eutrophic and others exhibit a character of non-natural nutrient enrichment.

“For river systems more and more cases are being observed but in smaller systems the rainy season can provide a dilution relief effect, but not so much in large systems such as the Vaal and Olifants rivers.”

Their hard-working nature means that large river systems receive continuous and large nutrient inputs from various anthropogenic (human-caused) activities, with “municipal wastewater treatment works being a priority input source due to their declining capacity to treat wastewater”.

“Simply put, the more human settlements, the more sewage waste is produced, sometimes exceeding the volumes that wastewater treatment works can handle. Agricultural and industrial activities also contribute nutrients into rivers,” Thwala says.

Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, says the most important drivers of eutrophication are dysfunctional waste water treatment works, dense informal settlements without proper sanitation, vandalism of sewage reticulation systems and sewage spills over many years into receiving streams.

“The tipping point has already been reached, beyond which, our ecosystems can no longer absorb and process the nutrients and other pollutants being passed on to it.”

The actions proposed by the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan is to by 2020, “identify and prosecute big polluters across the country (including municipalities), with a national communication campaign to accompany the action inclusive of reviving the Blue Scorpions”.

“The above-mentioned actions must be implemented concurrently with the development of the National Eutrophication Strategy," she says. "Failure to prosecute municipalities and other polluters will render the objectives of the strategy impotent.”

Eutrophication is a core priority of the Integrated National Water Resource Strategy and was identified as an issue of concern by the DWS in 2009.

It was highlighted in the Continuation of the Integrated Vaal River System Reconciliation Strategy Study (Phase 2) in March last year as an "unaddressed issue of concern".

Tackling it is entirely reliant on activities performed within the DWS, catchment management agencies (CMAs), together with other institutions within the water sector, Liefferink says. “However, the lethargy in completing the roll-out and delegations to CMAs is a major issue of concern. The development of the strategy is at risk to be aborted unless CMAs become functional.”

Eutrophication is a "crisis of unprecedented proportions", says Turton made all the more problematic because few people outside of the aquatic sciences and environmental health community "are aware that such a problem even exists”.

MINING

Notification of the Withdrawal of the Application of an Amendment of the Environmental Authorisation and Environmental Management Programme for the Sweet Sensation Sand Mining Operation in Free State

The concerted efforts and submissions to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), the Applicant and its appointed Environmental Assessment Practitioner (EAP) by the Protect Vaal Eden Committee, Vaal Eden community, and the Federation for a Sustainable Environment have resulted in the withdrawal of the application of an amendment of the environmental authorisation and environmental management programme for the Sweet Sensation Sand Mining operation adjacent to the Vaal River.  The EAP was notified by the DMRE that further specialist studies would be required to determine the impact the application for a screening plant and process would have on the environment and that a Regulation 31 amendment process, which involves a public participation process, must be undertaken.  The FSE welcomes the DMRE’s notification. Notification letter attached for download

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Mining activists in SA face death threats, intimidation and harassment - report

SATURDAY STAR | 19 APRIL 2019, 7:41PM | SHEREE BEGA Picture:Yvette Descham On August 13 2013, Billy M heard gunshots at the gate of his house. He didn't know who fired the gun, and, worried that local traditional leadership might be involved, he didn't report the incident to the police. For the next five years, the community activist from Fuleni, a small rural village in KwaZulu-Natal bordering one of SA's oldest and largest wilderness areas, the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, continued to receive threats.  "We know our lives are in danger. This is part of the struggle," he says, simply. Billy M's account is contained in a new report released this week, 'We know Our  Lives Are in Danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, which documents how community activists in mining areas face harassment, intimidation and violence. The report details how in Billy M's case, mining company Ibutho Coal had applied for rights to develop a coal mine in Fuleni in 2013. The development would have required the relocation of hundreds of people from their homes and farmland and destroy graveyards. "The mine's environmental impact assessment estimated that more than 6000 people living in the Fuleni area would be impacted. Blasting vibration, dust, and floodlights, too, could harm the community," says the report."During the environmental consultation processes, Billy M led opposition that culminated in a protest by community members in April 2016."The company reportedly abandoned the project in 2016 while another firm, Imvukuzane Resources is reportedly interested in mining in the area.The 74-page report, compiled by Human Rights Watch, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), groundWork, and Earthjustice, describes a system designed to "deter and penalise" mining opponents.The authors conducted interviews with more than 100 activists, community leaders, environmental groups, lawyers representing activists, police and municipal officials, describing the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape between 2013 and 2018. They report intimidation, violence, damage to property, the use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. "The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilise to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants," write the authors."Women often play a leading role in voicing these concerns, making them potential targets for harassment and attacks."But municipalities often impose barriers to protest on organisers that have no legal basis while government officials have failed to adequately investigate allegations of abuse."Some mining companies resort to frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to further curb opposition to their projects.  The government has a Constitutional obligation to protect activists," write the authors. Picture: Shayne Robinson, Section 27 Authorities should address the environmental and health concerns related to mining "instead of harassing the activists voicing these concerns,” remarks Matome Kapa, attorney at the CER.The report starts with the high-profile murder of activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who was killed at his home after receiving anonymous death threats in 2016. Rhadebe was the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), a community-based organisation formed in 2007 to oppose mining activity in Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape.  "Members of his community had been raising concerns that the titanium mine that Australian company Mineral Commodities Ltd proposed to develop on South Africa’s Wild Coast would displace the community and destroy their environment, traditions, and livelihoods. More than three years later, the police have not identified any suspects in his killing."Nonhle Mbuthuma, another Xolobeni community leader and spokesperson of the ACC, has also faced harassment and death threats from unidentified individuals. "I know I am on the hit list.… If I am dying for the truth, then I am dying for a good cause. I am not turning back," she says.But other mining areas have had experiences similar to that of Xolobeni. "While Bazooka’s murder and the threats against Nonhle have received domestic and international attention, many attacks on activists have gone unreported or unnoticed both within and outside the  country."This is, in part, because of "fear of retaliation for speaking out, and because police sometimes do not investigate the attacks", the authors found.The origin of these attacks or threats are often unknown. "So are the perpetrators, but activists believe they may have been facilitated by police, government officials, private security providers, or others apparently acting on behalf of mining companies. "Threats and intimidation by other community members against activists often stem from a belief that activists are preventing or undermining an economically-beneficial mining project. In some cases, government officials or representatives of companies deliberately drive and exploit  these community divisions, seeking to isolate and stigmatize those opposing the mine."The Minerals Council South Africa, which represents 77 mining companies, including some in the research areas, responded that it “is not aware of any threats or attacks against community rights defenders where (its) members operate”.The authors state that while the mining sector and the government emphasise how mining is essential for economic development, "they fail to acknowledge that mining comes at a high environmental and social cost, and often takes place without adequate consultation with,or consent of, local communities".The absence of effective government oversight means that mining activities have harmed the rights of communities across South Africa in various ways. "Such activities have depleted water supplies, polluted the air, soil, and water, and destroyed arable land and ecosystems."Researchers also documented cases of police misconduct, arbitrary arrest, and excessive use of force during protests in mining-affected communities, "which is part of a larger pattern in South Africa".Last year, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at Wits University documented various efforts by traditional authorities to stifle opposition to mines in their communities. "In some cases, traditional authorities label those opposing mines as anti-development and troublemakers, thus alienating and stigmatising them.As a result, community members are often afraid to speak out against a mine in open consultations," CALS found.Research by the SA Human Rights Commission, too, has found that community members sometimes “are afraid to openly oppose the mine for fear of intimidation or unfavourable treatment (by the Traditional Authority)."The SAHRC says many mining-affected communities are experiencing “the creation of tension and division within communities as a result of mining operations.Sometimes, threats and intimidation against activists come from community members who have been promised economic benefit from the proposed project or are politically allied with the government or traditional authority."Local communities often do not benefit from mining activities, says the report. "Although South African law requires the development of social and labour plans (SLPs) that establish binding commitments by mining companies to benefit communities and mine workers, CALS has documented significant flaws in the development and implementation of SLPs."Despite the environmental and social costs of mining, the government is not adequately enforcing relevant environmental standards and mining regulations throughout South Africa. The SAHRC has found that the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) often fails to hold mining companies accountable, "imposing few or no consequences for unlawful activities and therefore shifting the costs of pollution to local communities."Compliance with regulatory obligations, as well as monitoring and enforcement of such responsibilities, remains a crucial concern in the context of mining activities," says the SAHRC, noting how the DMR and other governmental agencies often do not respond to complaints filed against mines by community members.The report's authors describe how the lack of government action and oversight has also helped make the mining industry one of the least transparent industries in South Africa. Information that communities require to understand the impacts of mines and to hold mining companies accountable for harmful activities is often not publicly available. "Such information includes environmental authorisations, environmental management programs, waste management licences, atmospheric emission licences, mining rights, mining work programmes, social and labour plans, or compliance and enforcement information."The only way to access such information is through a request under South Africa’s access to information law, a procedure that the World Health Organisation has called 'seriously flawed' and which the DMR regularly flouts. In addition, mining companies and the government rarely consult meaningfully with communities during the mining approval process, resulting in uninformed and poor government and industry decisions that do not reflect community perspectives or have their support," says the report.The authors assert how the threats, attacks, and other forms of intimidation against community rights defenders and environmental groups have created an environment of fear "that prevents mining opponents from exercising their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and undermines their ability to defend themselves from the threats of mining".In its November 2018 review of South Africa’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern about “reports of human rights defenders, particularly those working to promote and defend the rights under the Covenant in the mining and environmental sectors, being threatened and harassed". It recommended that South Africa provide a safe and favourable environment for the work of human rights defenders to promote and protect economic, social, and cultural rights, including by "ensuring that all reported cases of intimidation, harassment, and violence against human rights defenders are promptly and thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice". Mining activist Mariette Liefferink, who made submissions to the UN committee, tells how it has become increasingly difficult to work as an environmental rights defender in South Africa.   "There is an overwhelming body of evidence of intimidation, whether it is by means of frontal attacks or more insidious attacks on activists."International and South African law requires South Africa to guarantee the rights of all people to life, security, freedoms of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and the rights to health and a healthy environment, say the authors."The attacks, threats, and obstacles to peaceful protest described in this report prevent many community activists in South Africa from exercising these rights to oppose or raise concerns about mines, in violation of South Africa’s obligations." 

WATER

Development of the National Eutrophication Strategy and Supporting Documents

Attached documents:1. DWS Eutrophication SA & GA PSC 1 BID2. PSC 1 Meeting Agenda - Eutrophication Strategy3. Issues and Response Register - Inception Report Comments

Fears of long term damage to SA's water supply as eutrophication strangles rivers and dams | IOL

Toxic green algae in the Vaal River is caused by eutrophication, which harms wat...