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Making South Africa a Model for Water Quality

Making South Africa a Model for Water QualitySteve Chapra, Civil and Environmental Engineering professor, visited South Africa to address the next generation of water-quality and water-management engineers who will have to deal with intersecting issues of health, economy, and sustainability.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.17.08] This year, South Africa's Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) is hosting its annual National Water Week from March 17-23. This year's theme of "Sustaining Lives, Enabling Growth" is particularly apt given that Mrs. Lindiwe Hendricks, Minister of DWAF, has recently refuted claims of a South African "water crisis" from multiple parties, including South Africa's World Wildlife Federation and the Democratic Alliance political party. Recently, Tufts University engineering professor Steve Chapra visited South Africa to address the next generation of water-quality and water-management engineers who will have to deal with intersecting issues of health, economy and sustainability.

Chapra, the Louis Berger chair in Tufts School of Engineering's Civil and Environmental Engineering department, was invited to speak by DWAF and members of South Africa's Water Research Commission. More than 50 DWAF officials and researchers attended three training sessions conducted over 10 days which focused on water-quality modelling and training.

Chapra's visit to the capital in late January came just before an article in the South African newspaper, The Times, indicated, according to information contained in a national nuclear contamination report, "South Africa is on the brink of a water contamination crisis." The Times quoted South African Municipal Workers Union researcher, Jeff Rudin, saying that the breakdown of monitoring and treatment services was a "national disaster waiting to happen." Rudin continued: "It's quite clear that we're sitting on a time-bomb and that we ought to take proactive steps. The [water] crisis we're in is exactly replicating the electricity crisis."

In a statement issued by DWAF the following day, Hendricks responded saying that the article presented "a gloomy picture of the state of water in South Africa" and dismissed the claim that the country was facing a water crisis on par with its problems with electricity.

Chapra acknowledged that blackouts were a frequent occurrence during his visit to the country, but like Hendricks he says he doesn't believe the water situation in the country was comparable to a "crisis" when South Africa is viewed in the context of African countries which have far greater water shortage and quality concerns.

"South Africa has always been concerned about water. In particular, because of South Africa's relatively low rainfall, its water resources have always been valued," says Chapra, adding that the country's National Water Act of 1998 is particularly progressive, especially in acknowledging disparities of water access as a result of apartheid. The act states "while water is a natural resource that belongs to all people, the discriminatory laws and practices of the past have prevented equal access to water, and use of water resources."

Since the ending of apartheid in 1994, South Africa's economy has grown to a GDP of hundreds of billions, and yet the country's unemployment rate still tops out over 20%. As a result, poverty and overcrowding is still rampant, particularly in urban areas like Pretoria. Chapra experienced this firsthand. "Huge shanty towns or 'squatter camps' have grown in and around all the country's urban areas. People live in improvised dwellings assembled from corrugated metal, scrap plywood, and sheets of plastic." This combination of a high-density population and lack of sanitation services has created a water-quality problem and a health risk.

"In my lectures [at the training], I linked it to cholera epidemics in the 1800s in London. The only place where people could get jobs was in the city, so they come in and they don't have housing," says Chapra. Similarly, when residents and neighboring immigrants come looking for work in South Africa cities, says Chapra, "They have a million people in a drainage basin with no toilets and no plumbing. Consequently, large quantities of untreated sewage are discharged from these communities and, during rainy periods, transform adjacent rivers into open sewers that are laden with disease-causing microorganisms. Water-borne diseases like cholera are effectively wiped out in the U.S., but they still pose a real threat to people there."

In addition to disease, sewage runoff from these urban areas, as well as nutrient runoff from local farms, have created weed-choked and oxygen-starved reservoirs in a process called eutrophication. "I have hideous pictures of some of their drinking water reservoirs," says Chapra who worked with DWAF personnel to model the water quality in a nearby lake. Adequate clean water for farms will also be a growing concern for South Africa as it looks to grow its economy in food exports to the European Union and elsewhere.

"South Africa has had a great tradition of water management, looking at salts, which is the initial water quality assessment in an arid region," says Chapra. "But now they need to expand their water quality modeling and management to move instep as their economy grows from subsistence to sustainability."

One of the greatest challenges to overcome may be the lack of trained engineers and researchers to gather the information needed to make water-quality assessments and to implement policy changes. Though Chapra says the DWAF personnel learned a great deal in the short time he was there, "creating an intellectual infrastructure will take a long time. They don't seem to emphasize water quality in their universities; it's all water quantity. We take it for granted [in the United States] that we've had a long history of environmental education and building institutions you can trust."

In the future, Chapra says he hopes to create partnerships with South African water-quality experts and government officials to use engineering tools to manage their water in a sustainable and cost-effective manner. "If this process succeeds, the benefits to South Africa, as well as to the entire African continent, should be immense."

Profile written by Julia Keller, Communications Specialist, Tufts School of Engineering 

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