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Saving Children’s Lives: Groundwater key to improving safe water delivery in South Africa

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Lives can be saved, disease prevented, and hardship reduced in South Africa’s poorer rural communities through effective sustainable groundwater development.

A large amount of government expenditure and social grant funding goes to poor and indigent individuals located in poor diffuse rural communities. The general standard of living is poor in these communities who are difficult to service from an infrastructure and health perspective. A major portion of the disease burden in these areas is a direct consequence of no treated water provision and lack of sanitation, where the associated Enteric diseases (i.e. Cholera, Typhoid and Listeriosis) are in the top 10 leading causes of natural deaths. The problem is so prevalent that the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NCID) has a dedicated Centre for Enteric Diseases which tracks and monitors these outbreaks. This disease burden places a strain on healthcare services.  The resultant poor health further reduces the productivity of people in these areas. Resolving water supply and safety challenges in these areas could result in a major reduction in the disease burden. This in turn will reduces the requirements for social and health care funding in these areas. It will also help in facilitate an environment where a healthier productive population which can contribute meaningfully to the local economy. Improving access to clean water in these poorer indigent communities can thus benefit all South Africans as it reduces the need for health care and social services and reduces the overall fiscal burden associated with these areas. In other words improving clean water supply in these areas will save lives, reduce misery and save money which can be used elsewhere.
According to the National Integrated Water Information System (NIWIS) and the Water Services Knowledge System (WSKS)  supported by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), access to a clean reliable water supply in South Africa is currently at about 88%. Heavily urbanised areas like Gauteng and the Western Cape have almost 100% of their population with safe access to clean water. More rural areas such as the Limpopo and Eastern Cape have access to water supply in the region of 75% and 70% respectively (See Figure). So while South Africa is one of the leading African countries associated with safe water provision to a large portion of its population it is still falling short of its sustainable development goals (SDGs) set out by the United Nations. There is hence a need for improvement in water provision to many areas.

Servicing diffuse rural communities with traditional piped surface water supply solutions is difficult and expensive. In many instances South African has exhausted these supply options making it virtually impossible to supply water to these rural communities through a traditional approach. The constraints are access to available suitable dam sites, terrain constraints relating to piping and pumping of water, access to electricity, cost and maintenance of piped infrastructure, water treatment knowledge and requirements. Alternative methods of supplying water to these communities thus need to be investigated. Groundwater a traditionally, underutilised resource in South Africa thus holds the key to improving water supply to many of these indigent diffuse rural communities. The advantages of using groundwater to supply these communities are numerous. Groundwater can usually be accessed close to the community in need and thus does not need large and elaborate piping infrastructure to facilitate the supply to these communities. Groundwater sources tend to be cleaner than most surface water sources where the ground acts as a purifying filter removing sediment (dirt), pathogens and algae from the water. The treatment costs and requirements are thus enormously reduced and easier to operate. The overall systems can effectively be setup and run at much lower cost and green energy solutions such as wind and solar can be used to pump water. In short groundwater development represents a cheaper, robust and more sustainable water supply alternative to many of these communities.

While, it may seem that groundwater represents a panacea resolving the clean water supply and delivery to many of these communities, there are some cautionary drawbacks that it is important to note. Groundwater supply needs to be developed sustainably and overuse of aquifer systems where withdrawal of water exceeds the recharge to an area can cause major issues. Overuse can lead to compaction and land subsidence which results in a permanent reduction in groundwater supply potential as the spaces between the rock and sand particles are reduced. Sinkholes where too much water is removed result in caverns being exposed and caving in. This can cause many problems for housing and other infrastructure in some of these areas. Water use activities can result in polluted waste discharges which can be reintroduced into the aquifer through groundwater ingress. This can result water supply being contaminated for extended periods. Added to this groundwater is a major contributor to surface water supplies and can be the main source of permanent or base flow in various river systems particularly in South Africa. The withdrawal of water from aquifers can result in less water contributing to flows in surface water resources reducing the flow in rivers and resulting in dam water supply being compromised. Additionally, in some areas of South Africa due to mining activities or from natural factors surface water supplies can be polluted and unsuitable for human consumption. The consequences of poor management of groundwater extraction and use in many areas can thus be both significant and permanent. It is hence important that groundwater extraction be undertaken in a circumspect and responsible manner.

The intrinsic difficulty associated with groundwater development is that the consequences associated with a particular action are both removed in time and space from the initial event or action which may have caused the problem. Sometimes the impacts related to certain actions might only manifest themselves many kilometres away and decades after the initial events took place. A study currently underway named “Enhancing Sustainable Groundwater Use in South Africa” sponsored by the DANIDA Water Engagement programme and incorporating both Danish and South African researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the University of the Western Cape as well as various private companies in both South Africa and Denmark is currently underway. As opposed to South Africa Denmark obtains more than 90% of its water supply from groundwater and has extensive experience in ensuring that groundwater resources are used in a sustainable and responsible manner. The environmental conditions associated with water supply in the regions are considerably different with the South African water scarcity placing additional challenges to ensuring that the long-term sustainable development of groundwater supply. The study which is being piloted in the Limpopo province will investigate the consequences of aquifer recharge in drier conditions with an ephemeral (does not flow permanently) river system. Additionally, exploring and looking at the consequences of potential managed aquifer recharge. The project uses members of the local community to assist in the monitoring of groundwater use and levels as well as various other information relating to the local community. Additionally, a water kiosk will be setup to supply the local community with clean water supplied by green energy in a fully contained sustainable mobile water treatment plant.

Children who are among the most vulnerable in these indigent rural communities are often the main victims of enteric diseases in unclean water supply, suffering painful diseases that can kill or leave them permanently impaired. It is believed that this study will go a long way in understanding and resolving some of the difficulties related to developing groundwater supply in South Africa. This should pave the way to many feasible groundwater development projects throughout South Africa. This project will in the very least improve the lives of the rural communities in the pilot area in South Africa. If the learnings are extended to other areas, it should result in the overall improvement of rural livelihoods thus preventing disease and saving precious children’s lives throughout this wonderful country of ours.

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