Call for communities to act against river pollution

Communities need to be the key agents for action to mitigate problems related to river pollution – writes Khulekani Ngcobo.

Rivers are an important part of human lives. But unfortunately, only a few are aware of its importance. The proof: tons of trash in our rivers and creeks, making it look and smell like a dumpsite.

“The garbage in rivers is more than just an eyesore because it can contaminate our drinking water and threaten nature, our lives, and that of our loved ones. Even a piece of litter thrown on the street may contribute to the piling garbage in our rivers and creeks”

“If we as South Africans wish to meet our common aspirations of social and economic development, we will need to act decisively to prioritize the management of our water resources and the ecosystems that provide us with water”

Rivers remain an important source of drinking water for many towns and cities. In terms of the supply of water, we will need to embrace the fundamental concept that water does not come from a tap, not even a dam; water is provided to us by healthy and functioning ecosystems.

Water is purified first before it reaches to our tap. However, if our rivers remain polluted, water cannot be purified to the extent that it would be suitable for human consumption. 

The quality of a river is a reflection of the way of life within a community through which it flows. It’s an indicator of the socio-economic conditions, environmental awareness, and attitude of its users.

The health of our rivers and wetlands is measured by the diversity and health of the species we share these resources with. 

The water resource is a living resource, complete with microbes, plants, and animals that interact with, and control, the water, and chemical cycles that determine how we can use the resource. Clean and healthy water resources are provided by healthy landscapes. Rivers are seen as the arteries of our living landscapes, and this is particularly true in semi-arid countries such as South Africa.

However, water faces many threats on its journey from the headwaters of the river basin to water users and estuaries. Pollution from fertilizers, wastewater treatment plants, and mining threatens to poison our rivers.

Over-abstraction from streams and boreholes and excessive losses from leaking pipes threaten to dry up our resources. Water is a renewable resource, replenished each year during the rainy season. But, it is an irreplaceable resource. We cannot substitute water with anything else. Whilst coal as an energy source can be substituted by solar energy or biofuels, water cannot be replaced.

Year after year, during the rainy seasons, pollution from dumping areas along the rivers continues to contaminate our rivers.

Well, as a water-scarce country, South Africa must act urgently to protect water resources and ensure we use what we have in the most efficient and effective ways possible. We need to recognize where water comes from, how to protect it along its journey to us, and how to stop wasting it.

It is without a doubt, that water supply is still a challenge in rural and developing areas of this country. In Eastern Cape, and Limpopo for example, residents continue to draw water from the river and fountain. As such, access to safe drinking water remains a dream.

Therefore, the solutions also need to be multi-faceted, implemented by all stakeholders at different levels. Communities living along rivers need to be the key agents for action to mitigate problems related to river pollution.

Hence, programs need to be developed that will help communities take action to improve the condition of rivers along which they live.

This can be done using an aggressive public awareness and education campaign to show how everything we do on a daily continual basis, negatively impacts our rivers if it is not managed properly.

Khulekani Ngcobo is a communicator at the Gauteng Department of Water and Sanitation.