From Toilet to Tap for Water Scarce City

(My third and final article on the Umgeni River for Inter Press Service).

KWAZULU-NATAL, South Africa, Oct 1 2013 (IPS) – In a few years, residents of the eThekwini municipality in the port city of Durban in South Africa could be drinking water that was once flushed down their toilets, as authorities are planning to recycle some of the municipality’s sewage and purify it to drinking quality standards.

“We’re going through a crucial water shortage, which is increased by the water demand of eThekwini,” Speedy Moodliar, the municipality’s senior manager of planning for water and sanitation, told IPS.

The municipality relies on the Umgeni river system for water. But demand on the system, which supplies drinking water to about five million people and fuels industry in the economic hubs of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, a town 66 kilometres from the coast, has outstripped supply for the past seven years.

To boost supply in future, the South African government has proposed building a dam with a capacity of 250 million cubic metres on the uMkhomazi river, the third-largest river in KwaZulu-Natal, and transferring water to the Umgeni system.

But this scheme will only be operational by 2024 at the earliest, said Moodliar. “Between now and when the uMkhomazi [project] comes online, [wastewater] re-use will be our mitigation measure.”

In dry countries like Israel, Egypt, and Australia treated wastewater is used for industry, landscaping and agriculture. But worldwide few countries put it directly into their drinking water supplies.

Singapore uses purified wastewater to meet 30 percent of its water needs, although just a small percentage goes to drinking water and the majority is used by industry. Citizens of Windhoek, the capital of South Africa’s arid northwestern neighbour Namibia, have been drinking recycled wastewater for over 40 years.

In 2011 the Beaufort West municipality, which serves close to 50,000 people, began treating its sewage for use as drinking water after a vicious drought, making it the first in South Africa to do so. According to a 2012 World Bank report “The future of water in African cities: why waste water?” few cities in Africa have functioning wastewater treatment plants and “only a small proportion of wastewater is collected, and an even smaller fraction is treated.”

eThekwini municipality plans to upgrade two of its existing, and underperforming, wastewater treatment plants – the KwaMashu and Northern treatment works, Moodliar explained.

To remove contaminants and clean the water to drinking quality standard, a three-stage system that treats effluent through ultra-filtration and reverse osmosis, as well as disinfection by ultraviolet light and chlorine would be used. The treated water would also be stored and tested before being released.

The purified water will be mixed with conventional drinking water at a ratio of 30 percent re-used water to 70 percent conventional, said Moodliar. It will feed the municipality’s northern regions, including Umhlanga, Durban North, Reservoir Hills, and KwaMashu.

Re-using wastewater in this way will add 116 megalitres of tap water to the municipality’s supply daily. This is enough to fill just more than 46 Olympic-size swimming pools. It is roughly 13 percent of the municipality’s current daily consumption, and will provide an estimated seven years of water security.

Read the full article at Inter Press Service.

Saving an Overburdened River

River

(The second installment in a three-part series on the Umgeni River for Inter Press Service).

HOWICK, South Africa , Aug 14 2013 (IPS) – Over the course of a 28-day trek down South Africa’s Umgeni River, which flows from the pristine wetlands of the Umgeni Vlei Nature Reserve to the Durban coastline, Penny Rees, a coordinator for the Duzi uMngeni Conservation Trust, witnessed the polar opposites of river health.

The trust is a nonprofit organisation that works to conserve the Umgeni and its tributary, the Msunduzi river. At the Umgeni River’s source the water ran clean and was good enough to drink for Rees, and the four volunteers who joined her in walking the length of the 232-kilometre river and documenting its health. Further downstream, after the river had wound past agricultural land and urban terrain, the water became sludgy and smelly.

“Sometimes you can smell it, like [we could] in Durban the last time we crossed the river,” Rees told IPS during an interview at her home in Howick, 97 kilometres north of the port city Durban. “You get to know the colour of the water – [it has] this grey, grungy look, and it stinks of sewage.”

The Umgeni River supplies drinking water to more than five million people, and is the main source of water for the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg town 66 kilometres from the coast. Rees’s sojourn further highlights the work of scientists who have pinpointed pollution problems in the river.

Read the full story at Inter Press Service.

Steps to Protect South Africa’s Wattled Cranes

(The first article in a three-part series for Inter Press Service I recently tied up about Kwa-Zulu Natal’s Umgeni River).

There are an estimated 80 breeding pairs of wattled cranes remaining in South Africa, and the total population is less than 260. Credit: Ian White/CC 2.0

There are an estimated 80 breeding pairs of wattled cranes remaining in South Africa, and the total population is less than 260. Credit: Ian White/CC 2.0

KWAZULU-NATAL MIDLANDS, South Africa, Aug 5 2013 (IPS) – On a winter’s afternoon in late July, potato farmer John Campbell and the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Tanya Smith surveyed the Umgeni Vlei Nature Reserve from a hilltop on Ivanhoe Farm in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

Separated from Smith’s binoculars by a swathe of golden brown grass, the water pooled in the wetland basin that sources the Umgeni River glistens in the mild sunshine as it winds its way for 265 km to meet the ocean at Durban’s coastline.

“We’ve got two pairs [of wattled cranes] nesting in here at the moment,” Smith, a senior field officer with the African Crane Conservation Programme told IPS. A week earlier she had flown over the wetland for an annual aerial survey of the critically endangered birds. The birds can grow taller than five feet and are characterised by a bumpy red patch of skin between their beaks and eyes.

There are an estimated 80 breeding pairs of wattled cranes remaining in South Africa. The total South African population is less than 260.

To maintain Umgeni Vlei’s biodiversity and protect the regal cranes’ habitat, the South African government declared the reserve a Ramsar Site in April this year, giving it special protection as a “wetland of international importance” under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty on the protection of wetlands.

“On the Ramsar-designated wetland we’ve had up to seven breeding pairs of wattled cranes, but the number fluctuates every year,” said Smith. “If you include [the surrounding] wetlands we’ve had up to 13 breeding pairs – it’s a huge proportion of the country’s breeding population.”

Wetlands on the land owned by Ivanhoe Farming Company, of which Campbell is a director, serve as home to up to six breeding pairs of wattled cranes. To help conserve them, Campbell has designated 800 hectares of farmland which buttress the reserve.

This is a protected area with nature reserve status through the KwaZulu-Natal Biodiversity Stewardship Programme run by provincial government body Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife.

“I think cranes and agriculture can co-exist,” Campbell told IPS. “Most farmers, I find, are conservation-minded.”

Read the full article at Inter Press Service.

Water Debt and Leaks Plague City Residents

Bulana_home_IPSCape Town water activist Nokuzola Bulana says water management devices are not the way to solve water waste and debt for the poor. Credit: Brendon Bosworth/IPS.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa, May 23 2013 (IPS) – Nokuzola Bulana has a problem with leaks. The water that drips from the pipes of the toilet outside her home in Khayelitsha, a large semi-informal township on the fringes of Cape Town, South Africa goes to waste and drives up her water bill.

Bulana, a water activist, says she fixed the leaks in January but water on the floor at the base of the toilet, which is inside a stall painted with pink, yellow and purple stripes, and pooled on the ground outside the stall, shows that seepages persist.

In March, her eight-person home used over seven times the amount of water the city of Cape Town gives indigent households for free in a month. Bulana blames the leaks for this.

“We don’t mind to pay for the water we drink or cook with but now the water goes down the drain,” Bulana tells IPS when interviewed at her home. “I love the environment. I want to look after the water.”

Bulana is one of many South Africans whose wasted water contributes to the country’s yearly loss of more than a third of its water – a shortfall driven chiefly by leaks, according to a 2012 report from the South African Water Research Commission. These losses cost municipalities more than 731 million dollars annually and drive poor citizens into debt they often cannot afford to pay.

South Africa is also the 30th driest country in the world and could hit water shortages as early as 2025. It can scarcely afford to squander this resource.

Read the rest of my story at Inter Press Service.

Swale of a time at Platbos Forest

hands

I learned a new word recently. Swale: a ditch on a contour which catches run-off. As an assistant team leader at Greenpop’s Reforest Festival over the weekend one of my job’s included inspecting swales to make sure they were up to scratch. I might also have been responsible for some very poor jokes (“swale of a time,” “swale watching,” “who supports swaling?”) but I’m kind of a geek when it comes to new words.

The festivalgoers planted 3,000 trees at Platbos Forest, which is the southernmost indigenous forest on the continent, on Saturday. We dug holes, shaped swales, and got our hands dirty. The new trees will help stave off the threat of encroaching alien vegetation and keep the forest growing strong. 

I was glad to be part of it.

team effort

young milkwoods

Mountain Musings

The simple act of walking is a salve. It helps me stop thinking about the job, the money (lack thereof) and what’s next. I enjoy shelving my daily thoughts and focusing on physicality for a few hours.

Walking the paths that cut into the peaks above Kalk Bay and Muizenberg gives me the time I need to do this.

Lately, the proteas have been out and the winds have been quiet. High up in the rocks, looking over the Indian Ocean, a person feels calm. And that’s all I’m after most of the time.

Here are some shots from my recent constitutionals.

Pan1

Looking onto Muizenberg from Peck’s Valley.

protea

Protea shows its colours

view graf

Looking toward Simon’s Town. Someone tagged this pole.

pan2

View from a peak above Boyes Drive.

Would a legal trade in rhino horn curb poaching?

In the face of rampant rhino poaching in South Africa, some conservationists and private rhino farmers are lobbying for removal of the international ban on rhino horn trading and the creation of a legal market to quell poaching.

ImageMy latest article for Inter Press Service News delves into the arguments for and against creating a legal trade.

Here’s an excerpt:

The trade ban is creating a situation where rhinos are being killed unnecessarily,” Duan Biggs, research fellow at the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at Australia’s University of Queensland, told IPS. “It’s taking resources away from other conservation efforts, and is leading to the situation where there’s a pseudo war taking place in the Kruger National Park.”

The South African government is exploring this option and could make a proposal at the 2016 Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to allow it to open up rhino horn sales. That would require support from a two-thirds majority of the 178 member states.

Proposals to lift the ban, which has been in place since 1977, have sparked debate about whether a legal market would actually curb poaching. Opponents worry that it would stimulate the black market trade that exists in parts of Asia, where rhino horn sells for 65,000 dollars a kilogramme – more than gold or cocaine – and is touted as a cure for hangovers and an aphrodisiac in countries like Vietnam.

But advocates say it would be the solution to the poaching crisis.

Full article at IPS News and also republished at The Guardian.

Image: white rhino from TomFawls via wikimedia.

California’s carbon market may succeed where others have failed

Cap trade

Image: first of a three-part infographic about how California’s cap and trade program works. Designed by Andy Cullen and copyright High Country News.

This year, California rolled out an economy-wide carbon cap and trade program, the first of its kind in the U.S. There is a lot riding on the success or failure of this program, not least because California is the ninth largest economy in the world and is going it alone with cap and trade in the U.S. The Golden State also has a legacy of introducing pioneering environmental legislation that other states and eventually the federal government adopt.

In my latest story for High Country News, I write about how the state has designed the program to avoid the mistakes of the European Union’s carbon trading scheme, which has suffered from overallocation of carbon credits and subsequent slumps in the carbon price.

The story also highlights the concerns of a major steel producer, California Steel Industries, which, like other businesses, is concerned about finding cost-effective ways to reduce its carbon emissions as the carbon “cap” tightens in future.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Golden State forged ahead with the carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program despite the U.S. Senate’s 2010 failure to pass a national program. Given the state’s history of implementing environmental regulations that later become national policy, a successful cap-and-trade system could serve as a federal model. If cap-and-trade in California “fails, or is perceived to have failed, then that could be the nail in the coffin for cap-and-trade consideration as a policy instrument in Washington,” says Robert Stavins, a Harvard professor who studies climate policy.

While its overall impact on U.S. emissions won’t be major, the California experiment makes several improvements to existing cap-and-trade strategies. It covers more sources of pollution than the five-year-old Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeastern U.S., which applies only to power plants. The European Union started the world’s largest carbon cap-and-trade program in 2005, but it had a significant flaw: the initial stage of the program gave away too many free credits, resulting in some power companies raking in windfall profits by raising electricity prices even though they didn’t have to pay for their allowances. It also contributed to low prices for carbon allowances, which provides scant incentive to cut emissions.

Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board, the agency steering the state program, is confident that California’s effort will be different. The program covers 360 businesses, which represent about 600 facilities that each release more than 25,000 metric tons yearly — enough to put a big dent in California’s total carbon output. The EU’s difficulty, Nichols notes, was that authorities didn’t have an accurate measure of the total quantity of emissions initially. California, though, has had a greenhouse-gas reporting requirement in place since 2008.

Full article at High Country News.