Farmers warned yesterday that SA’s deteriorating water quality could put European export markets at risk.
The warning throws a harsh light on the state of SA’s water quality and the African National Congress’s policy of cadre deployment at local government level.
A 2009 Green Drop report found 55% of SA’s 900 water treatment plants attained a score of less than 50%.
The farmers’ warning also echoes the concerns of retailers Pick n Pay and Spar , who said yesterday they are concerned about declining water quality. Woolworths dismissed a widely reported supplier’s claim that it has rejected produce contaminated with Escheria coli, a pathogen found in sewage.
Woolworths later said that while no product has been rejected due to concerns about E. coli, its suppliers are mindful of the need to preserve water quality.
Individual farmers were reluctant to talk to Business Day for fear of jeopardising existing contracts with local and foreign buyers, but the Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU) said its members are worried that if they continue using contaminated water, their produce would fail to meet stringent European standards.
“If the standards fall (below) a certain level, Europe won’t accept our food. If we let everyone know, and we lose our export markets, (farmers) stand to lose millions, and there will be job losses,” TAU vice- president Louis Meintjes said.
If farmers lose foreign customers, they will be forced to dump their produce on the local market, with knock-on effects for other farmers who depend on domestic customers. Meintjes emphasised that water is contaminated not only with pathogens originating from untreated sewage, but also with industrial pollutants and agricultural run-off.
“It’s been a problem for a long time, but over the past two or three years it’s got much worse.”
Farmers were particularly worried about waterborne pathogens such as E. coli, he said.
These accumulate on the surface of fruit and vegetables irrigated with contaminated water and can survive there for weeks after harvest. The concentration of bacteria rises with each successive watering.
While it is possible for farmers to treat contaminated produce after harvest to kill the pathogens — with radiation, for example — it is prohibitively expensive.
Pick n Pay spokeswoman Tamra Veley said the company tested farmers’ produce monthly, and those who had E. coli in their irrigation water had to buy their own water treatment plants.
Pick n Pay last detected E. coli in 2009, but the issue is a growing problem, she said.
Spar’s Freshline head Peter Gohl said it last had an E. coli incident 18 months ago. Contrary to other stakeholders interviewed, its testing had found no evidence of a worsening situation.
Meintjes said the TAU is frustrated by the government’s failure to enforce the Water Act and laid criminal charges against the state in May, but the police have made no progress.
Declining water quality has also seen the Save the Vaal campaign turn to the courts, chairman Lötter Wepener said.
Last month it secured a court order compelling the Parys municipality to maintain its sewage works. Tour operators running water sports downstream of Parys had complained of a bad smell and solid sewage waste in the water, said his colleague, Annalien Burger. “Can you imagine if you have tourists in canoes and this (stuff) is in the water?” she said.
Jo Barnes, an epidemiologist from the University of Stellenbosch who has done research on pathogens in river water, said the risk of sewage pollution is climbing “across the country”.
Dr Barnes, who says she has been threatened by farmers and officials who do not want her to blow the whistle on the state of SA’s rivers, said she is “really concerned” about the government’s denial of the problem.
“There is no follow-up (on polluting municipalities) and no comebacks,” she said.
Trade union Uasa said the poor state of water treatment works “could potentially mean that 4174 megalitres of untreated or partially treated waste water, which is the equivalent of 1670 Olympic-size swimming pools, could be ending up in our our dams and rivers on a daily basis”.
Credit to: Business Day