Health of rivers: Department of Water Affairs briefing

Water and Sanitation

16 August 2011
Chairperson: Mr J De Lange (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Water Affairs briefed the Committee on the state of health of South African rivers. Most of the country had experienced good rainfall, except for parts of KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, where dam storage was generally lower than in previous years. The main problems that affected water quality in South Africa were eutrophication, faecal pollution, salinity, toxicity and acid mine drainage. The Department then outlined the problems in rivers in each province. Rivers in the Western Cape were affected by salinity due to the marine ecology. The Vaal River system and Orange River near the confluence with the Vaal River were impacted on by the mining activities and irrigation, power generation and sewage effluents. The Waterval, Blesbokspruit, Natalspruit and Klip Rivers were also affected by effluents from wastewater treatment plants and industries. In the Free State, sedimentation was a problem, especially in the upper Orange River, due to the sandy soil structure. The Northern Cape Rivers experienced high levels of chlorides due to irrigation return flows and mining. In KwaZulu-Natal, the middle Umgeni River experienced high phosphate levels due to poultry farms, effluent from beef cattle feed lots and informal settlements without sanitation facilities. In Eastern Cape, the Umthatha River was impacted upon by high nutrients and faecal pollution due to the overflowing sewer manholes and overloaded wastewater treatment works. The Department realised that the main challenge lay in establishing an integrated approach that was better able to monitor and direct human and financial resources where needed. At the moment neither faecal pollution nor pesticides were monitored widely, even though they posed health risks to human and agricultural activities. It was stressed that problems in raw water ended up as problems in drinking water.

Members asked what was being done to ensure there was greater awareness and education, particularly in the rural areas, to ensure cleaner rivers. They asked for specific details as to what was being done to address the problems for specific rivers, and asked to what extent the Department was tracking trends in relation to the health of rivers, what was being done to improve phosphate regulations in South Africa, how many people were employed to deal with the monitoring of nutrients in rivers and alien vegetation, and what mechanisms were in place to deal with the issue of acid mine drainage in Mpumalanga. They also wanted to know the progress of the Adopt a River programme, the trajectory of the analysis and findings, and to what extent the Department of Water Affairs interacted with other departments around the inputting of data, marine systems, and other aspects. Members also asked whether the water problems could affect South Africa’s gross domestic product and whether the Department would, in this case, be able to deal with them. They also enquired if there were health risks associated with consuming raw agricultural products irrigated with water from  areas that had been identified as risk hotspots, and whether the Department was able to limit recreational activities on dams.

Meeting report

Health of rivers: Department of Water Affairs briefing
Mr Moloko Matlala, Acting Chief Director: Water Resources Information Management, Department of Water Affairs, firstly outlined that this country had good rainfall, and had good dam storage, except for parts of KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. The dam storage in most provinces exceeded that of the previous year, but the Western Cape had low dam storage.

He outlined that the main problems that affected water quality in the rivers in South Africa were eutrophication, faecal pollution, salinity, toxicity and acid mine drainage. The Nuy, Grootrivier, Olifants, Swart Vlei, Swartkops, Kariega, Mooi and Blaaubank rivers in the Western Cape were affected by salinity, due to the marine ecology.

The Vaal River system, and Orange River near the confluence with the Vaal River were impacted on by mining activities, irrigation, power generation and sewage effluents. The Waterval, Blesbokspruit, Natalspruit and Klip Rivers were also affected by effluents from wastewater treatment plants and industries. The lower Crocodile River showed elevated salinity and phosphate concentrations and this was of concern, especially in respect of irrigation. The upper Crocodile River was polluted by effluents from gold mining activities and effluents from wastewater treatment works. The trophic state of virtually all the dams in the Crocodile River catchment was very high and algae blooms were common.

In the Free State, sedimentation was a problem, especially in the upper Orange River, owing to the sandy soil structure. The major dams in the Orange River, the Gariep and Vanderkloof had very good water quality and sedimentation did not impact on these dams.

The Northern Cape rivers experienced high levels of chlorides, due to irrigation return flows and mining.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the middle Umgeni River experienced high phosphate levels due to poultry farms, effluent from beef cattle feed lots and informal settlements without sanitation facilities. The Umsunduze River had problems with turbidity, caused by soil erosion and overgrazing, faecal pollution due to raw sewage entering the river via small streams, alien vegetation that impacted on the river flow. The Umlazi River was heavily impacted upon by the poor sewage effluents discharged into the river, the solid waste site that was close to the river, sand mining in the river, which resulted in river diversion, and industries, including a textile factory that discharged directly into the river. The Umthatha River was impacted upon by high nutrients and faecal pollution due to the overflowing sewer manholes and overloaded wastewater treatment works.

The Great Fish River had high salinity but was diluted by the water from the Gariep Dam transfer scheme. The middle and lower Buffalo River was affected by discharged effluents from wastewater treatment plants.

In summary, he said that the quality of water was dominated by salinity, with certain areas experiencing high nutrient levels and faecal pollution. The challenge faced by the Department of Water Affairs (DWA or the Department) was how to ensure an integrated approach that would, in turn, ensure optimal monitoring of both human and financial resources. Some areas were not monitored regularly, if at all, due to a lack of human and financial resources. For instance, faecal pollution and pesticides were not monitored widely, even though they posed health risks to human and agricultural activities. The monitoring of water quality should be a major priority, as problems in raw water ended up as problems with drinking water.

Discussion
Ms J Manganye (ANC) asked what the relationship was between the Department of Water Affairs and the Department of Fisheries, around the monitoring of marine ecosystems was.

Mr Mbangiseni Nepfumbada, Acting Deputy Director-General, Department of Water Affairs, answered that the specific area on which the Department had been presenting was concerned with fresh water rivers. However, the two did look at impacts on all water.

Ms H Ndude (COPE) asked what was being done in respect of the Kei River, and, in general, what was done to ensure greater awareness and education towards cleaner rivers, in more rural areas.

Mr Matlala answered that the Department’s interventions in this regard would be included in its next presentation to the Committee.

Mr Nepfumbada added that the Department’s focus was not solely on urban areas. Although guidelines for water use at local level were used when explaining adequate water usage to people, awareness in this regard could be improved.

Ms C Zikalala (IFP) asked what the Department was doing about the fact that the Umthatha River was affected by alien vegetation and sewage. She also asked what types of human activities which were affecting the Hartebeespoort Dam.

Mr Nepfumbada answered that this was a critical issue and was being addressed through the Working for Water programme. Specific information on the interventions here could be provided in writing to the Committee.

Mr Matlala added that the Department was aware of these problems and was working towards improving compliance monitoring, especially around the issuing of licences for certain activities.

Mr Nepfumbada continued that examples of these human activities were seen at catchments, such as farming and household activities.

Mr G Morgan (DA) asked to what extent the Department was tracking trends in relation to the health of rivers. He asked how many dams were closed off for certain uses – such as recreational purposes -  as a result of high amounts of eutrophication, and to what extent people were being protected from water that was unsuitable for human or animal consumption. He also wanted to know whether the interventions for Hartebeespoort Dam were working and transferable, and whether there was any audit done to gauge the efficacy of these interventions.  He also asked what was being done to improve phosphate regulations in South Africa.

Mr Matlala answered that the Department put together reports on the state of water on an annual basis. It could provide more information to the Committee in writing.
 
Mr Nepfumbada added that, because eutrophication took place in areas where there was development, it was important to limit, at catchment level,  the activities that produced high phosphate levels. In addition, it was important to work in an integrated manner with other departments and stakeholders. Enforcement in relation to the Hartebeespoort Dam programme was linked to implementation of the regulatory responsibility, and this in turn was linked to monitoring, on which a report had been presented previously. He added that the Department would send through more information in writing. The Department was currently in the process of looking into this matter.

Mr J Skosana (ANC) asked how many people were employed to deal with the monitoring of nutrients in rivers, as well as alien vegetation. He also asked what mechanisms were in place to deal with the issue of acid mine drainage in Mpumalanga.
 
Mr Nepfumbada answered that this information would be provided to the Committee in writing.

Mr Matlala added that monitoring programmes were able to ascertain whether there were any problems. The Department had also put up treatment works around one of the tributaries of the Oliphants River, through which it hoped to increase the alkalinity of the water. Mines and municipalities were also working together towards ensuring water was of a potable standard.

Ms P Bhengu (ANC) asked whether there was any progress report on the “Adopt a River” programme. She also enquired whether there was any inter-sectoral group at Cabinet level that engaged on budget planning, the granting of permits for mining activities and the protection of marine life, so as to ensure the health of rivers.
 
Mr Nepfumbada answered that the Adopt a River programme was an important one as information garnered through it was fed back into the system, which in turn aided the Department in its monitoring role. Specifics on its progress could be provided to the Committee in writing. He also confirmed that the Department was currently working together with other Departments, and there were existing structures that saw different Department working in an integrated manner.

The Acting Chairperson asked how the Department worked with farmers in the Free State to solve the problem of sedimentation which arose as a result of overgrazing.

Mr Nepfumbada answered that specific details around this could be provided to the Committee in writing.

Mr S Huang (ANC) asked what the population count was in high-risk water areas.

Mr Nepfumbada answered that specific information around this could be provided to the Committee in writing.

Mr Morgan asked about the trajectory of the analysis that the Department had undertaken. He enquired to what extent other stakeholders would interact with the Department around the input of data, and whether there was any mechanism through which it could intervene if there were problems that could affect South Africa’s ability to increase its gross domestic product.

Mr Nepfumbada answered that this was an important issue and the Department would provide the information to the Committee in writing. Information related to the quality of water was shared through the United Nations Environmental Programme for Global Environmental Monitoring Systems, and this was then reported at a global level.

Mr Matlala added that the Department, through its internal strategy perspectives, linked the usage of water by various sectors to the gross domestic product.

The Acting Chairperson asked whether there were any health risks posed as a result of eating raw agricultural products in areas that had been identified as risk hotspots.

Mr Nepfumbada answered that there were risks in this regard, although the Department did try to ensure that people were made aware of the risks of irrigating with raw water that contained microbes.

Ms J Manganye (ANC) commented that there was an urgent need for greater visibility in rural areas.

Mr Nepfumbada responded that this issue could not be over-emphasised and that, as far as its resources allowed, the Department would push for increased visibility in these areas.

The meeting was adjourned.

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