Dirty Water: South Africa (Day 3-4)

The morning haze had settled over the ocean on the beach right behind our lodge.  The sand was chock full of treasures–brightly-colored seashells, sea glass, picturesque rocks and even a scary-looking jellyfish.  Yet despite being surrounded by water, I realized later, I was hardly thinking about it.

Stuff on the beach

The problem with water, and simultaneously the power of water, is that it creates all-encompassing effects that ripples throughout multiple levels of society, the environment, and the world as a whole.  Water is needed for everything you can possibly imagine that contributes to life on the planet– agriculture, geological formations, biodiversity, and survival.  As a result whenever a “water crisis” arises, we will always see multiple stakeholders fighting to ensure that their interests are provided for.

This is what Tuesday and Wednesday of our trip was really about.  We heard from numerous individuals telling us about different aspects of water usage and human interference in natural water flows.  We looked at the trend of South Africa’s management of the public’s access to water since 1994, the end of apartheid, and realized that although the data certainly showed a highly positive trend, the high proportion of missing data and of inconsistencies in defining “access,” meant that the numbers should be questioned.  We learned about the “water wars” throughout human history and debated about whether water can be considered an economic commodity.

We actually visited one of the primary examples of the vast number of stakeholders in water-related problems as we drove from Port Elizabeth to our second and final location of the trip, the city of George.  The drive along the coast next to the deep blue, sparkling sea gave us a glimpse of the natural beauty of South Africa, as we passed by vast plains of green framed by mountains in the distance.  We reached a particular section of beach where the Tauw river, running perpendicular to the sea, naturally flushed into the sea.  Dr. Dirk Roux led a discussion there of a few of the many problems surrounding this particular estuary.  The climate, the location relative to the beach, and the general scenery made this area prime real estate.  However, the natural flooding of the river, caused by heavy rains that either pushed the water above the normal river levels or which accumulated in the mountains and rushed down into the valley, posed serious risks to their property.  The government’s solution to that was that when the river began to approach a certain height (2.1 meters), they would open up a channel from the river to the ocean to allow the water to flow into the sea and the water level in the river to drop.

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A beach en route to George.

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Dr. Dirk Roux explaining the geography of the area.

It’s an understandable and by definition, a functional engineering solution.  But it’s not a biological one.  The Tauw river also connects to three lakes through channels that were dug between them.  These lakes have always been freshwater lakes.  In recent years, however, people have found marine saltwater species in these freshwater lakes.  Why?  Because of the artificial connection created between the river and the ocean that has created a backflow of species and ecosystem-mixing.  The presence of invasive species in the lakes poses unnatural threats to the native species.  The land in the flood plain as a whole is also very fertile, and thus, the community in the area is highly agricultural, one of the largest users of water.  And then there are the nature enthusiasts, those who gain from the use of the rivers or lakes for fishing, boating and other recreational activities.  So you can imagine a situation in which any solution made affects any of these 4 stakeholders: the conservationists, the homeowners, the farmers and the nature enthusiasts.

“Dirty” water is about much more than pollution.  It is about these problems of access, of grappling with natural forces like flooding, of the politics, the economic disparities, the human interactions.  It is a complex problem, much more so than any individual engineering or social science discipline.  And no artificial construct, channel, or one, easy “solution” is going to change it all.