The list of ten or so things that are better in South Africa than in most other parts of the world invariably features good quality drinking water (at least in metropolitan areas). Good tap water has become almost a matter of national pride.
That, however, may be about to change.
There are claims that Johannesburg faces the threat of toxic water seeping out of idle mines and contaminating the municipal water system as early as next year.
The problem is the acid mine drainage. The whole area around Johannesburg is dotted with old, now closed mines that are slowly filling with toxic water containing sulphuric acid, heavy metals and other undesirable elements. The acid mine drainage occurs when the acidic and heavy metals-laden water from the mines start seeping into the surrounding soil and waterways, threatening to pollute surface and ground water.
The drainage of toxic water could become serious within one year, but it is by no means a new problem. Toxic mine water surfaced eight years ago, just west of Johannesburg, and it still flows out of the ground during heavy rains. According to one report, the run-off has poisoned the surrounding soil, made a nearby dam radioactive and wiped out life in affected waters.
In a report presented to the Cabinet in February, a group of experts warned that millions of litres of rapidly-rising acid mine water under Johannesburg would start flooding the lower levels of the Gold Reef City tourist mine early next year. Even before starting to flow out on the surface, the acid mine drainage would reach the environmentally critical level, with potentially devastating consequences.
Acid mine water affects four provinces. Gauteng is in the worst position, because it has the biggest number of closed mines, but the problem also touches on the North West, the Free State and the Northern Cape.
South Africa has about six thousand abandoned and derelict mines. Many had been run by companies that are now out of business. That leaves the state responsible for 70% of them. It is estimated that a ten-year rehabilitation programme would cost R1.5 billion. Just one pump to remove the water costs R218 million.
The South African Water and Environmental Affairs Ministry recently said that the government has provided R400 million for clearing and cleaning derelict mines, but was not going to “keep quiet and sit back”. Instead, it is looking at introducing a tax on mines as a way to force them to foot the bill.
Pumping the toxic water out of closed mines before it contaminates the surrounding areas and perhaps reaches the water supply system is just the first step in dealing with the issue. The next one is - what to do with all the poisoned water.
The South African government is investigating the possibility of treating the water drained from the mines and using it as grey water for industry, or even as potable water.
The toxic mine water predicament comes on the top of other water-related problems that beset the country. The most pertinent is the simple fact that South Africa is a semi-arid country. Its limited water resources are sorely tested by the raising demands of the growing population and by various pollutants.
In some areas, the water is so bad that farmers cannot use it for irrigation. Especially worried are organic food producers. They say that, due to waters being polluted, they might soon not be able to carry the “organic” label on anything grown in South Africa.
Besides looking into water recycling, the government is investigating other potential sources of clean fresh water. For example, the desalination of sea water, even though it is a very expensive process, could be a viable option in the drought hit coastal areas of the Western and Eastern Cape. In the very dry Mossel Bay, a desalination project is already under way and proving to be successful. The possibility of using underground water and harvesting of rain water are other options that the government is looking into.
A recent TNS Research survey shows that South Africans are becoming aware of the enormity of the water problem. Asked about the most urgent needs in the country, they quoted water in the third place, after job creation and housing.
Image source: Media Club South Africa