Wednesday, 15 August 2007

CONTAMINATED WATER POSING A SERIOUS THREAT TO HEALTH: AN AGRICULTURAL PERSPECTIVE


Contaminated water is usually the result of numerous factors, ranging from groundwater being exposed to various forms of heavy metals and harmful solids, to contamination as a result of previous mining (mine acid decant) and/or some or other form of industrial and farming activities. Over a period of time, these minute particles are transported via an underground ecological system (e.g. dolomite and dynamic karst systems) and find their way into water utilized for every day consumption.

1.1 Geohydrologist’s and Geophysicists have proved that the threat to agriculture is more serious than anticipated by governing bodies such as The Department of Water and Forestry (DWAF). Any cattle living on the emanating decant will carry a diverse range of heavy metal poisoning’s, including that of Thorium and Uranium. Their reproduction and fetal deaths are reported to be the biggest concern.

1.2 Some vegetables absorb heavy metals along with other usually undesirable pathogens (the biological agent that causes disease or illness to its host).
In numerous informal settlements, vegetables are grown close to rivers and streams, such as the case in Tokyo and Slovo informal settlements close to Reiger Park on the East Rand (Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality). As a result of poor living conditions and virtually non-existent service delivery in terms of water and sanitation, the Elsburg Spruit is contaminated by human waste. The same contaminated water is utilized for the vegetation, which is logically absorbed by the vegetables and thus relayed to human health systems.

1.3 Besides the vegetables itself, farming equipments’ life expectancy is likely to decrease as a result of the corrosive irrigant on farming fields. This will also have a direct effect on borehole quality. Although no know study has been made on the long term effect this will have on productivity and cost effectiveness of capital enriched equipment, it seems obvious that long term farming is expected to drop as a result of diminishing soil quality as a result of exposure to contaminated water.

1.4 The farm labourers exposed to the contaminated water and soil and vegetation on a permanent basis, pose the threat of contracting heavy metals poisoning. Environmentalists believe that that this scenario already exists, albeit subtle, and the situation is made much more complex as it is difficult to quantify the current situation, although enough evidence exists that prove the current threat.

COMMENT:
Under normal circumstances, the path that a patient diagnosed with heavy metals poisoning will be a long painful one with serious implications to heath care provision services (e.g. medical aids) and personal or government budgets. The average medical practitioner would thus hardly ever expect a patient to suffer from heavy metals poisoning of this nature. It is therefore imperative to involve the Department of Health in a combined effort to address the issue of heavy metals poisoning in humans.

1.5 It has previously been mentioned that the Krugersdorp Game Reserve and various agricultural industries in the geographical surrounding areas face immanent closure due to declining quality of available groundwater and soil. The area also caters for the Cradle of Humankind (COH) World Heritage Site (WHS), which is under serious threat due to this harmful hydrology. It is believed that South Africa will loose the WHS as a direct result of poor management of the groundwater by all the authorities involved.

1.6 Another source of the contamination is historical mining activities. As pointed out in previous reports, mining activities all over Gauteng has contaminated natural water supply in the form of acid decant. Harmony Gold Mine to the west of Gauteng has cleaned up their site and effectively changed the hydrology. The East Rand Propriety Mine (Pty) Ltd (ERPM) was supposed to have utilized a government grant to sufficiently “clean” groundwater, but failed to do so. Environmentalists have complained to the DWAF and provincial government, but without any remediatory response. (The matter of contaminated groundwater caused by ERPM was covered in the media during 2005.) In Ekurhuleni various informal settlements is exposed to this contaminated groundwater (as mentioned above).

1.7 The mining industry seems to acknowledge the fact that the dolomite (on which most of Gauteng is situated) or underground karst systems are not compartmentalized and that all the surrounding areas are interlinked through an ancient flow paths. This only emphasizes the complexity of the issue of contaminated groundwater and its vast effects on all areas in Gauteng and on all animal, plant and human life.


2. ADDITIONAL REMARKS

2.1 The DWAF and the Rand Water (RW) have indicated that they intend to upgrade the current water system in Delmas. A media report (Beeld 2006/05/23) indicates that the upgrade will cost ±R100 million. This is primarily done as a direct result of the recent outbreak of typhoid fever which cost five people their lives and hundreds fell sick, and secondarily because the water system is apparently outdated. A strong borehole is to be sunk and linked to the town’s reservoir. Hydrologists and environmentalists believe that a new water utilization system would not address the origin of the contaminated water, and will thus have no impact on water quality.

2.2 Harmony Gold Mine has been forced to assist three closed-down mines in the North West Province (Stilfontein, Buffelsfontein and Hartebeesfontein) to pump and treat underground water supply, even though these mines do not belong to Harmony (Beeld 2006/05/30). This proves that the underground water system situated on a dynamic dolomite (karst) system is so inter-linked that no single province can function independently, and there was argued that the contaminated water from one mine (even though it was closed-down) can be “transported” to another mine and result in loss of life in current operational mines.

2.3 The International Union of Conservation Nations (IUCN SA) held a Karst Working Group (KWG) meeting during January 2006 whereby the issue of “impacts of agriculture and mining on the water resources and water-based ecosystem of the COHWHS” was discussed. This emphasizes the fact that the management of water quality at the COHWHS as incorporated in the Blue IQ Projects, is a great concern that needs continuous attention from a wide variety of authorities.