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SA scientists collaborate to tackle water crisis

Multiple health and environmental emergencies are being predicted by South Africa’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage), which warns that the cholera deaths in Hammanskraal are symptomatic of a widening collapse of water treatment facilities, and that immediate action needs to be taken by authorities.

The 15 senior academic experts urged the government to implement urgent measures – including the takeover of dysfunctional municipal treatment works and criminal prosecution of inept officials, writes Tony Carnie in Daily Maverick.

Sage, comprising researchers from five universities, the SA Medical Research Council, the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and the Institute of Natural Resources, issued a list of recommendations last week, urging the Department of Water & Sanitation (DWS) and other government agencies to implement them immediately to avoid multiple health and environmental emergencies.

The subcommittee on water security and water quality said it acknowledged that the source of Hammanskraal’s deadly cholera outbreak was yet to be established, but believed several factors contributed to the outbreak, “including dysfunctional wastewater treatment facilities”.

“The loss of lives … was avoidable and symptomatic of a widening collapse of water treatment facilities, countrywide. Left unchecked, such an unfolding collapse could precipitate multiple concurrent health and environmental emergencies.”

It recommended a series of actions, including halting shoddy billing systems and debt collection by municipalities that were “fuelling runaway debt to water boards” – in turn contributing to systemic failures and dysfunction in wastewater facilities.

The DWS, it suggested, should prioritise the urgent remediation of dysfunctional and failing wastewater treatment plants, and with other government agencies, engage water boards on issues ranging from technical staff competency to finances.

The national Water Department should also develop specially tailored public awareness campaigns to “instil a sense of deep reverence for water”, and commit to publishing the annual Blue Drop reports in the interests of public health, accountability and transparency.

Where necessary, the DWS should take over the water and sanitation function of dysfunctional service providers and consider amending the National Water Act to empower it to control technical, revenue collection and other functions

Crucially, the national department should commit to “accountability”.

Non-compliant officials should be subject to consequence management, including disciplinary action, fines and, where applicable, criminal charges.

The 15 academics who made the recommendations are Professor Jerome Singh (ASSAf); Dr Renee Street and Sizwe Nkambule of the SA Medical Research Council; Dr Sershen Naidoo (Institute of Natural Resources); Dr Keagan Pokpas, Dr Thokozani Kanyerere, Professor Leslie Petrik, Professor Dominic Mazvimavi, Dr Sumaya Clarke and Professor Nebo Jovanovic (University of the Western Cape); Dr Patricks Otomo and Professor Aliza Le Roux (University of the Free State); Dr David Ikumi (University of Cape Town); Dr Marizvikuru Manjoro (University of Venda) and Professor Craig Sheridan (Wits University).

Sage recommendations follow recent similar concerns by University of the Free State water security expert Professor Anthony Turton. Fifteen years ago, the CSIR cancelled his keynote speech in which he warned that South Africa’s water problems would soon eclipse the then emerging electricity crisis.

Meanwhile, the civil society WaterCAN group, commenting on last week’s release of the Blue Drop Watch, Green Drop Watch, and the long-awaited No Drop Watch said: “The high level of failure of water service authorities and service providers to supply the national water department with timely data on the state of their water resources is the type of inaction that will lead to water-borne disease outbreaks becoming endemic.

“If left unchecked, water-borne disease outbreaks… will increase and possibly become endemic.”

It said the reports showed “the horrifying state of drinking water and sewerage systems and the apparent acceptance of this situation by water service authorities and water service providers”, said Dr Ferrial Adam, executive manager of WaterCAN.

“WaterCAN welcomes the directives and the criminal charges against municipalities. But we want to see them go further: charge those responsible, fire the people responsible, including municipal managers and mayors.”

 

Daily Maverick article – Top SA scientists present action plan to fight nationwide cholera outbreak (Creative Commons Licence)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

Source of cholera outbreak still unclear: Phaahla

 

Class action threat after cholera deaths

 

Field hospitals set up as cholera cases spread and deaths climb

 

 

 

 

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