The deadly effects of water pollution- South Africa

The planet has become one large dumping ground where our rubbish and pollutants are killing countless animals, marine life and spreading disease. It is estimated that around 5 million people die every year from drinking contaminated water which spreads sickness and waterborne diseases such as typhoid and cholera.

Human waste or sewage is one is one of the problems we face. In areas where there are no sewage treatment plants, raw, untreated sewage is pumped into the ocean. Marine outfall pipes extend deep into the ocean.

This is of great concern to environmentalists who have issued dire warnings over the years regarding the long-term consequences and the threat to our marine systems.

In developing countries, it is estimated that 90 percent of waste water is discharged directly into rivers and streams without treatment.

She quotes Professor Leslie Petrik from the University of the Western Cape’s Chemistry Department who had this to say: “What is going out into the ocean is essentially a mixture of your sewage waste, as well as every chemical that you use in the household, or for medicinal purposes, or for cleaning purposes. These other compounds are far more dangerous than the actual sewage, because the sewage will still probably decompose over time, but many of these compounds are very persistent and they accumulate within the environment and once they’re released you can’t recall them back.”

This is of course, just the tip of the iceberg; the least of our problems though when you consider the amount of industrial pollutants entering our water supplies; like a toxic soup. It’s quite frightening to learn just what is ending up in our water supplies and our oceans. Ocean pollution is a problem of epic proportions.

Have you ever heard of an ocean trash vortex? It is a gyre of marine debris and particles of plastic floating in the ocean. Currents generate a vortex of swirling rubbish which grows larger every day. When we litter, it collects in our rivers and ultimately washes down to the ocean where rotating currents form a large floating rubbish dump out at sea.

Another threat to our ocean marine systems is microplastics. These are the miniscule plastic beads found in toothpaste, facial cleansers and kitchen scrubs. These are ending up in sewage and being pumped out to sea. These microbeads are ingested by fish, mussels and other sea creatures. Please don’t buy products containing microbeads, rather buy an exfoliating glove.

Industry is a huge source of water pollution, it produces pollutants that are extremely harmful to people and the environment. Toxic effluent is pumped into nearby water sources that eventually ends up in our dams and oceans, posing a serious threat to human health and our survival.

Factories including oil refineries, pulp and paper mills, chemical, electronics and automobile manufacturers all contribute to adding pollutants to the environment. Of course, to the reader, this means nothing in itself, so here are some startling facts about how we are polluting the planet. Read it and weep:

* Sewage, phosphates or fertilizers and pesticides.

* Heavy metals, sulphur and cyanide used by mining companies to chemically extract gold, end up in our rivers.

* Chemicals and industrial waste from industry.

* Coal mining is responsible for complete environmental destruction. It contaminates groundwater, rivers and the ocean with toxic pollutants like heavy metals, arsenic, mercury from acid-mine drainage, coal ash, sludge and waste and also is responsible for acid rain and thermal pollution. Research has shown that exposure to these dangerous chemicals can lead to birth defects, cancer, and even death. This industry also uses enormous amounts of water. According to Greenpeace, a typical coal plant withdraws enough water to fill an olympic-sized swimming pool every three and a half minutes.

* Air pollution contributes to ocean acidification and mercury contamination in fish; caused by pollutants like mercury, sulphur dioxide, nitric oxides and ammonia deposits. Coal-fired plants, vehicle exhaust fumes and industrial emissions are some of the biggest cause of air pollution and contribute greatly to global warming.

* Factory farming where staggering amounts of manure produces dangerous microbes, nitrates and drug-resistant bacteria as well as emitting toxic gases such as hydrogen, ammonia, sulfide and methane.

* Run-off from streets into storm water systems picks up chemicals and pollutants, engine oils and many others on their way to flowing into rivers and out to sea, never mind the tons of plastic and rubbish lying on the streets.

* Landfills also pollute the environment and produce (1) Toxins: Many materials that end up as waste contain toxic substances that leach into our soil and ground water. (2) Leachate: This is the liquid formed when waste breaks down in the landfill and water filters through that waste. This liquid is highly toxic and can pollute the land, ground water and water ways. (3) Greenhouse gases: organic material such as food scraps are compacted and causes it to break down in an anaerobic process which releases methane which contributes to global warming.

* Plastic pollutes our oceans and rivers and is consumed by fish and other marine life such as seabirds, whales, turtles, seals and many other marine animals. They are eating it, getting tangled and choking to death on it, suffering from intestinal blockage and dying of starvation. Remember that each piece of plastic that is recycled means one less piece to pollute our oceans and kill innocent marine mammals.

It is a sad fact that polluters seem to be largely unregulated and this gives them free reign to pollute our waterways without fear of being held accountable. I would imagine that loopholes and weak law enforcement are also partly to blame. A recent article in the Pretoria East Rekord by Du P Martins, is another example of water pollution in South Africa and how it affects not only our health but the fragile eco-systems that keep our planet alive. 

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Unfortunately, because of the lifestyles we are accustomed to, the lovely things on supermarket and shop shelves all play a pivotal role as factories operate 24/7 manufacturing all these products. Our demand for these products are the biggest contributing factor to global pollution. Where will it all end? It’s time governments addressed this serious issue.

Unless pollution is curtailed and fast, we are contributing to our own demise. The solutions rest with us. We need to change our lifestyles and think about what we pour down our drains, how we litter the streets, the poisons we use every day. We can change the status quo. Humans have created the problem, it’s up to us to educate our children on the harsh realities facing us all. This in turn, will motivate them to find solutions and ultimately save us all from our own destructive ways.

There is of course, plenty you can do to help:

* Stop buying products with too much packaging or recycle.

* Plastic does not biodegrade and poses the biggest threat to our rivers and ocean. Reduce your dependency on it, or recycle.

* Look for biodegradable.

* Buy organic and free range.

* Stop the use of pesticides and poisons.

* Take your own bags when going shopping.

* Refuse that polystyrene packaging.

* Recycle your tins, paper/cardboard/magazines, glass and soft plastics.

* When buying take-away meals, take your own container and start a trend.

* Cycle more or join a lift club and reduce vehicle exhaust emissions.

* Find environment-friendly alternative or even go back to the way our grandparents did things before we started using pollutants.

* Save water.

* Compost your food scraps and green waste.

* Buy local and reduce the carbon footprint.

* When taking a walk on the beach, pick up litter before it all ends up in our oceans.

* Fishermen need to be more responsible – pick up discarded nets or fishing gear. Only leave your footprints.

If we are to find solutions, then we have to think about these things. We can no longer ignore the threat to our health. We only have one planet. Actions speak far louder than words. Respect the planet and lead by example and in so doing, you will teach your children. Whatever we do today affects the planet we leave behind for our children and for generations to come. These issues may be out of sight, but we should keep them in our minds. It’s up to us to make a difference.