Mother Nature to rescue SA from its polluted water
Artificial swamps to be built in Gauteng's informal townships as part of an international project
Scientists are turning to Mother Nature in a bid to eradicate deadly waterborne diseases and pollution endangering the lives of millions of South Africans.
The lifesaving solution: artificially constructed wetlands.
With millions of impoverished citizens living in homes surrounded by ruptured sewers, industries discarding deadly chemicals into rivers that supply water to households and farms, and drought dwindling aqua supplies, the race is on to clean up and make SA’s water sustainable.
SA researchers, engineers and biologists from the Water Research Commission (WRC) and Wits University’s Centre in Water Research and Development, together with scientists from Germany and Sweden, are now spearheading an international project to make the country’s water safe.
The research, named Project Urbwat, will, through R13m worth of funding from the European Union, see the establishment of artificial wetlands in informal settlements, which are the front line of waterborne diseases and home to an estimated 12 million South Africans, according to the researchers.
The three-year project is designed, through the use of aqua plants and microbes, to clean untreated greywater and sewage. Greywater is any water that does not flow from toilets and has usually been used for washing, cooking and cleaning.
A pilot project that was run in Stellenbosch’s Langrug informal settlement, is now to be expanded into Gauteng.
Alexandra, one of Gauteng’s most densely populated townships, has been identified as first first informal settlement in the province where the project will be rolled out.
Situated alongside the heavily polluted Jukskei River, surrounded by industries and with poor stormwater and sewerage systems, the township is the ideal place to establish the system, say researchers.
Urbwat’s project leader, Professor Craig Sheridan, the director of the Wits Centre in Water Research and Development, said the project met the dire need in SA for a low-cost, sustainable solution for informal settlements that lack adequate sanitation infrastructure.
“Greywater is under-studied in South Africa and this project provides a unique research opportunity.
“Through Urbwat, we will engage and train community members on how to use the system and educate them about the risks and dangers of poor sanitation.”
He said the sheer number of people living in informal settlements, and the effect of wastewater treatment on health and livelihood, made the need for adequate sanitation and hygiene, a priority.
“Hazards such as home car repairs and home slaughtering of livestock in informal settlements aggravate risks.
“Under these conditions, waterborne diseases such as cholera thrive and undermine health.”
He said the systems, which would include special greywater disposal points, were artificial swamps made up of plants and gravel, designed to treat and purify greywater in an eco-friendly and sustainable way.
“They act as a drainage system.
“This project is not around reuse of the water. It is designed to treat and get polluted water away from people safely and to protect the environment when it enters rivers.”
Sheridan said the other site for the project was Soweto’s Klipspruit informal settlement.
Alexandra and Klipspruit had been selected because they were prone to flooding.
Sheridan said water pollution in informal settlements was not just an African problem. “We are seeing heavy pollution in refugee camps in Europe and in Asia in megacity slums.
“Ultimately, constructed wetlands have the potential to provide valuable assistance in treating water to and from temporary settlements constructed to deal with emergencies or for use in refugee camps, where there is poor access to sewage and greywater treatment.”
He said if researchers and scientists were able to get the project to work, and could develop a better understanding of how water pollutants work and the best mechanisms to clear them up, this type of project could have a global impact.
Tiyani Chauke, the WRC’s international projects manager, said the project was proving highly successful, especially when it came to knowledge sharing.
He said the technology behind the project had been developed through international co-operation, knowledge sharing and joint research activities.
“Experts from across the world have come together to find solutions to a global problem around water sustainability.
“This project offers the opportunity to find very localised solutions to the challenge of making polluted waters safe.”