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You are here:Home>>Strategic Research & Analysis>>Dennis Alvarez>> And the Waters Turned to Blood
Saturday, 18 September 2010 23:45

And the Waters Turned to Blood

Written by Dennis Alvarez
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The health risks and long-term consequences of aquatic pollution in Africa


And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and the fountains of waters; and there was made blood (Revelations, 16:1)

For centuries man has been preoccupied and fearful about destruction of the earth coming from the hand of God. The bible is replete with warnings about the destruction of the earth. Today, in spite of the apocalyptic warnings, it almost appears that man is willing and often quite eager to hasten the process.

Perhaps the most vital to life and the most abundant of all resources, water, comprises over 70% of the Earth’s surface. There is nothing that can cause more misery, illness, or death than the lack of clean water. Current estimates indicate that nearly 1.5 billion people lack safe drinking water and that at least 5 million deaths per year can be attributed to diseases caused by contaminated water (Kranz and Kifferson, 2002).

Such a scenario is playing out in South Africa’s third largest city, Durban, home to that country’s busiest port with a population of over 3 million people. It also is the home of numerous industries including Shell South Africa, British Petroleum, Petronas, the Mondi Paper Company, and AECI. In the southern sections of South Duram lies the Isipingo River. A once vibrant and pristine river, it is now only a shell of its former self. Years of neglect and rampant pollution have caused high levels of heavy metal contaminants including lead, mercury, chromium, nickel, arsenic and others. Widespread industrial accidents, discharges from wastewater treatment plants, and illegal dumping have caused countless fish kills and have left a body of water that will poses a considerable risk to those who live near it. According to the DWAF, the water in the Isipingo River has degraded to such an extent that it no longer sustains any aquatic life. It has been deemed “not fit for recreational or environmental use.” Despite the dangers, people living in settlements along the Isipingo are currently are drawing household water from the river (DWAF, 1992).
The Health Risks
Contaminated surface water can pose a risk to both plant and animal life that can directly impact all levels of the food chain. Heavy metal pollution of surface and underground water sources results in considerable soil pollution. These metals are taken up or absorbed by the root systems of crops and other plants and begin accumulate in their tissues. The wildlife that graze on these plants or drink from contaminated waters, as well as fish or other marine life, will also accumulate these metals in their fat. Humans are in turn are exposed to heavy metals by drinking or bathing in the water or by consuming contaminated plants and animals. This has been known to result in various illnesses including neurological impairments, endocrine disorders, respiratory illness, gastrointestinal illness and various forms of cancer (Duruibe, J., Ogwuegbu, M., & Egwurugwu, J. (2007).
The effects of long-term exposure are not always immediately apparent. More often, they are unnoticed, appearing months or even years after exposure. The reason for this variability is due to the rates that the human body will bioaccumulate contaminants and store them in body fat or lipids. The amount that can be consumed above bio-recommended limits is called the threshold limit (IERE, 2003). Symptoms of illness will not often appear until the threshold limits for these heavy metals are reached. The young are particularly vulnerable to the effects of heavy metal poisoning, especially in the case of mercury, where the blood brain barrier is not fully developed, allowing the mercury to cause neurological impairment. Human exposure to heavy metals is common, due to extensive use in industry and long-term environmental persistence. Historically, the heaviest metal exposures occurred in the workplace or in environmental settings in close proximity to industrial sources (IERE, 2003).
Children in South Durban are confronting an equally frightening and more insidious illness, cancer. According to University of Natal's Nelson Mandela Medical School, the rate of leukemia and other childhood cancers are 24 times has high as other parts of the country. Although there is a dearth of epidemiological evidence that consistently demonstrates a relation between exposure to metals and cancer, little has been done to protect public welfare outside of an industrial environment.
The spike in the rates of leukemia for Durban’s children may be just the beginning. It is an unfortunate tragedy, that in underdeveloped countries, very few children receive treatment for cancer.  In some of the communities, it is estimated that there may be over 80% of children diagnosed with advanced tumors. Often, parents will ignore symptoms and seek medical care only after the condition has advance to such a state where treatment would not be successful.
The Long Term Strategy
The toxic pollutants that have impacted the Isipingo River and South Africa are not confined there. Aside from health risks, across the continent water pollution has contributed to the endangerment of wildlife, the loss of fisheries, and the destruction or loss of habitats.
In “Water Quality Management and Pollution Control”, Moyo (2007) indicates the management of present and future water quality in southern Africa is fundamentally important if the continued existence of both the resource and the populations reliant on the resource is to be ensured. The only way this can be accomplished is through the establishment and enforcement of mechanisms needed to mitigate or eliminate the effects of pollution on the waterways and in human health.
Figure 2.0  Toyota workers at a voluntary Isipingo River Cleanup
Industry and community involvement are perhaps the most important factors. Those who live and work and live in the community have a vested interest in preserving, protecting and reducing the amounts of pollutants in the community When a multi-stakeholder group (groups with a common interest) is formed, it affords the unique opportunity for governments, businesses, and the community to be engaged in a common solution. Often, such a partnership allows mutual education among the parties and the sharing of ideas and the development of practical or workable solutions. Citizens can be dedicated and passionate agents of change when provided with the proper vehicle or means to participate in creating communities that benefit themselves while keeping their waterways and environment clean.

Pristine waterways are the ideal. It is unfortunate that this goal will probably not be completely achieved in our lifetime. However, in taking the first steps in the restoration of an estuary or the protection and revitalization of a waterway, the example of environmental protection in imparted to subsequent generations who may one day realize the goal of having pollutant free water.


Duruibe, J., Ogwuegbu, M., & Egwurugwu, J. (2007). Heavy metal pollution and human biotoxic effects. [Editorial]. International Journal of Physical Sciences, 2:5, 112-118

IERE (2003). Heavy Metals Handbook: A guide for healthcare practitioners. In The Institute for Environmental Research and Education (Vol. 1, pp. 2-10). Vashon, Washington: Science Subcommittee of the Heavy Metals Remediation Committee of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council

Krantz, D., & Kifferstein, B. (2002). Water Pollution and Society. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan

Tsiho, S. (2007). Water Pollution in Southern Africa has gotten bad. Gibbs Magazine

University of Michigan (2001). South African Environmental Justice struggles against "toxic" petrochemical industries in South Durban: The Engen Refinery Case


Last modified on Sunday, 19 September 2010 00:02
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