We are water. Water is our life. Remove water from us for a few days and we die. But if we drink water that is not as pure as the water from which we evolved so many millennia ago, it can do us more harm than good.
Water is essential to all life on earth. If streams, rivers, ponds, swamps and wetlands are compromised and damaged, good water can soon turn bad.
Polluted rivers damage the health of all organisms, including humans, which rely on them. Damaged wetlands fail to filter and clean water, with disastrous impacts.
A RESOURCE UNDER THREAT
South Africans, like many other people living in drier parts of the world, are starting to realize just how precarious our water supplies really are.
We currently trap and use more than 96% of the water that falls to earth, one of the highest proportions globally. Our water reserves are under pressure. We must protect what we have.
News reports regularly disclose increasingly worrying information about the state of our water treatment and purification plants, particularly those in our smaller municipalities.
Water is not properly purified before being released back into water sources often used by those living downstream, exacerbating the problem.
Agricultural run-off of nutrient- and chemical-laden water enters rivers and ends up in dams.
This causes eutrophication (which means that excess nutrient in bodies of water stimulates excessive growth of plant life, especially algae), leading to toxin build-up in the water, increasing purification costs.
Acid mine drainage is causing serious downstream impacts in many of our rivers.
All this means that our limited water supplies are needlessly damaged and diminished. Compounding the problem, urbanisation and increased industrialization in metropolitan hubs place a huge strain on our water supplies.
For instance, Cape Town extracts its water from an area many times larger than the metropole itself.
The Witwatersrand relies on distant water from the Thukela basin and Lesotho.
Cities then wastefully use this pure water for domestic and industrial requirements. Each flush of an urban toilet pollutes 10 liters of drinkable water. Every drop of otherwise clean water that ends up in a municipal wastewater treatment plant is effectively polluted and must be treated.
Our existing wastewater systems are environmentally unsustainable, requiring huge energy inputs and emitting methane, CO2 and pharmaceutical and chemical-laden water.
We need to reconsider how to deal with these challenges.
The largest user of water is the agricultural industry, which consumes more than 65% of our total supply. Vast amounts are wasted by outdated irrigation methods. Agricultural run-off leaches high nutrient loads from animal farming operations, chemicals and fertilizers, polluting water sources.
We can change this. Modern irrigation must be encouraged. For instance, sub-surface drip irrigation piping can reduce evaporative losses and salt build-up in the soil, a result of conventional irrigation that makes soil sterile and unusable.
This has happened over vast swathes of Southern Australia, once a global grain-basket.
Meat production is extremely wasteful in its use of water. Concentrated livestock operations produce high nutrient loads in the form of manure. This ‘waste’ should be transferred to bio-digesters, producing natural gas for fuel, clean water and fertilizer.
Instead, agricultural run-off contaminates major dams such as Hartebeespoort, which is now so polluted that the system is biologically dead. Untreated, this water would seriously harm people and animals.
This is clearly a crazy way to treat such a precious resource.
We must manage problems like acid mine drainage, water that becomes acidified, and poisoned by high levels of heavy metals after mined areas are flooded by underground water. The acidity alone creates irreversible environmental damage to rivers and wetlands surrounding our coal, gold and other mines.
Heavy metals compound the problem. These examples illustrate our national failure to care for our water properly. Polluted water is far more complex and expensive to manage than pristine water. Once a river is polluted, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to restore a sustainable ecosystem equilibrium.
NEW WAYS OF MANAGEMENT
There are ways in which we can manage our lives to halt these destructive patterns. Firstly we must shift away from our obsolete practices, some of them centuries old – waterborne sewage is a prime example.
We cannot permit industries to pollute water and then rehabilitate it at public expense. Disposing of polluted water into the sea is equally stupid, unsustainable and outdated. How do we modernize our practices?
Fortunately, we have many sustainable models to learn from. The city of Windhoek has been treating its sewage water to such high standards for over half a century that it is returned to the general water supply.
Our present methods of treating sewage have to change – we simply cannot afford to lose the energy and nutrients embedded in the system, let alone the water!
Dumping high-nutrient ‘waste’ into landfills must stop.
We have reached an ecological and human crossroads in how we manage our planetary systems. We can either continue down the low road that will inevitably lead us into to a culdesac of entropy, or we can take a high road where we care for our resources in ways that maintain ecosystem health, provide employment, food, and fuel while purifying our water.
The dominant economic model is one in which it is more profitable to destroy wetlands than to construct them. Why can we not build wetlands, mimicking natural habitats, to clean our water, and produce fuel and food in the forms of algae, biomass, fish, and vegetables?
If we are to survive, we have to take care of our limited and rapidly diminishing water resources far more seriously than we do at present.
We currently externalize the environmental costs of making money. Instead of paying for the damage to our water, those who profit from it pass the costs on to the public.
This happens in several ways:
For instance, the tax we pay is used to fix the environmental damage from acid mine water and to offset the health costs of organisms that thrive in polluted water.
WHAT CAN I DO?
At a personal level, how can we deal with these impacts?
Firstly we need progressive water laws that outlaw pollution and wasteful water use. Then we have personal and collective responsibilities to see these laws and regulations implemented. It is the polluter, not us, who must pay for their damage.
We also need to change how we flush perfectly good water down the toilet by using non-potable water for flushing.
At a personal level, it is useful to filter water, to remove heavy metals, chemicals, and to purify and sterilize water, especially in regions that have poor water treatment plants.
Please, don’t buy or use bottled water – it is wasteful and polluting, and is usually only filtered tap water.
We all have a role to play in caring for our resources.
We humans, as water-based organisms, need to take proper care of our water. After all, water is not just life, it is us.
Written by John Miler
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