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Environmental problems: Pollution of water resources

Written by Eamonn Ryan 

Throughout the country, there is widespread evidence of sewerage spilling into water resources, causing serious environmental problems. Just one example is that some weeks ago Rietvlei, Table View in Cape Town had to be closed due to extremely high ecoli levels. The City had identified a ‘potential source of pollution’ as being a sewer manhole overflow alongside Bayside Mall into the Bayside canal which leads into the vlei. The City was then unable to timeously resolve the problems as two City departments wrangled over who was responsible.

Indeed, there are legal moves afoot to make cases of what are really environmental terrorism (though obviously worse cases than the above incompetence) an international crime. According to The Guardian newspaper in the UK, legal experts from across the globe have drawn up a “historic” definition of ecocide (alongside such crimes as genocide), intended to be adopted by the international criminal court (ICC) to prosecute the most egregious offences against the environment.

The draft law, unveiled in June, defines ecocide as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”.

The Stop Ecocide Foundation initiative comes amid concerns that not enough is being done to tackle the climate and ecological crisis. If adopted by the ICC’s members, it would become just the fifth offence the court prosecutes – alongside war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and the crime of aggression – and the first new international crime since the 1940s when Nazi leaders were prosecuted at the Nuremberg trials.

An ecocide law has been mooted since 1972, having been considered for inclusion in the 1998 Rome statute establishing the ICC before being dropped.

Jojo Mehta, from Stop Ecocide Foundation, said it was a “historic moment”, adding: “The resulting definition is well pitched between what needs to be done concretely to protect ecosystems and what will be acceptable to states. It’s concise, it’s based on strong legal precedents and it will mesh well with existing laws. Governments will take it seriously, and it offers a workable legal tool corresponding to a real and pressing need in the world.”

While this is no doubt initially aimed at more serious offences, it sets the tone for where the world is heading in terms of litigating intentional environmental damage.

Some of the more serious environmental challenges in this country – the Vaal Dam, Haartebeestepoort and the Hennops River, are often the result of poor plumbing, explains IOPSA executive director Brendan Reynolds.

It may not seem to be a concern of the average consumer, but Reynolds explains that the home is exactly where many of these problems start: “At a person’s home, the sewage flows to the municipal drainage system (sewer) which in turn flows into a treatment plant which treats that water to varying degrees dependent on where you live. In most areas of South Africa the waste water is treated to a safe level and returned to the natural water course, such as a dam where it can be used for irrigation, for example.

“Then there is the stormwater system (which flows directly into the natural water course), and the problem occurs when these get illegally connected by unqualified plumbers who don’t know or understand the danger of interconnecting the two. A typical mistake is for them to connect the downpipe from a roof to the drain, a mistake which multiplied over thousands of homes results in treatment plants being overwhelmed by volume when it rains and unable to do its function. Poorly treated sewage then goes into a natural water course as if it were correctly treated.

“The reverse – an unqualified plumber connecting the domestic sewerage system to a stormwater system – is even more common, in which case the raw sewage then goes directly to natural water courses in which in rural areas people may be swimming or washing, or using it for irrigation. A sewer is a relatively small pipe because it is planned around the actual number of residences and the flow should therefore be consistent. A stormwater pipe is much larger, and much less used, because its volumes are periodic based on when it rains.

“A stormwater pipe is therefore mostly dry until it rains, and when a sewerage pipe is illegally connected, the raw sewage doesn’t flow but congeals when the appropriate volume of water isn’t flowing to flush it clean. This blocks the flow. A sign of that comes when it does rain and manholes pop up because the pipe is blocked and the water has nowhere else to flow. This pollutes our natural water courses, leading communities to complain about their municipalities on Facebook because the dam, where they take their dogs for a walk or their kids swim is full of raw sewage. They fail to understand that it is often not the municipality at fault, but consumers among all communities themselves employing unqualified plumbers who make illegal connections out of ignorance. If anything, it is more prevalent in upmarket suburbs, with their large gardens which are prone to flooding,” says Reynolds.

“Whether illegal connections are done out of ignorance or carelessness is irrelevant, because the effect is the same,” he adds.


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