For the millions of us who live in the cities and urban sprawls of South Africa, the journey and quality of our water begins and ends with a tap. You turn it on, water comes out. We pay little heed to where the water comes from, whether it is healthy to drink and how human activities impact on this precious resource.

By: Chirene Campbell

For Eunice Ubomba-Jaswa, mapping and caring about water is a passion as much as it is her career. Ubomba-Jaswa is a microbiologist by training but currently works at the Water Research Commission as a research manager. She manages a portfolio of projects dealing with source water pollution and protection, including both microbial and chemical contaminants.

On the third episode of the second season of the much-lauded and highly-successful “For Water For Life” the podcast series presented by JoJo, which focusses on water, Ubomba-Jaswa speaks of how a greater understanding of where our water comes from is vital to understanding the need to secure and care for it.

She talks about how the journey of water is more than about turning on a tap. Where does it come from, she explores the journey water takes and the various sources of it – the quality and conservation. Where is it being polluted, how is it being cleaned, how does the quality of water affect lives, health and livelihoods?

“You don’t see it. The only thing you see is your tap. You open your tap, is there water or not? But cities, especially in, let me say the African continent, are facing immense pressure because the urbanisation and population growth is really, really rapid,” said Ubomba-Jaswa.

“Just the ability to have a good shower at the end of the day knowing that you will not get sick after your shower. You finish your shower, you go and drink a cup of lovely tea made with good quality water. You’re good. The bulk of my projects also have a human health element related to it. But ultimately, the focus is really to develop solutions to address water quality challenges, and to make sure the environment and people are healthy.”

Very little of South Africa’s total water is available to us for daily use. This means that our catchment areas, which collect rainfall and provide water for domestic and industrial use, are extremely important. These fragile and essential ecosystems are affected by all human activities, but many of them in South Africa are taking extra strain.

“I think that it’s important to recognise that our river catchments work really hard for us and we like to classify them as our working rivers. So, we look at the Vaal system, Crocodile and Olifants River Systems, for example, where a lot of mining and agricultural activities take place. 

“The agricultural sector uses pesticides, herbicides and a multitude of fertilisers, which are important for growth of our crops. But at the same time, if they are not removed before they are dumped into the resource, then you also have catchment areas that become endangered. That’s where we as the Water Research Commission come in, because we fund a lot of work that looks at how to rehabilitate some of these river systems that have been damaged because of use.”

The migration to urban areas and where cities are positioned can put a strain on water systems, particularly with service delivery in terms of how wastewater is treated and managed.

“If a city has been designed for 100 people, and water infrastructure that serves 100 people, and now you have within a span of 10 years, maybe tripling of that population, and now the infrastructure is not being addressed to meet up with that supply, you will have people who will not have access to water occasionally,” said Ubomba-Jaswa.

“Sometimes our cities have grown in areas that are very either semi-arid or arid regions. They’re not actually rainfall predominant areas, which also makes it complicated. So, you’re basically bringing in, transferring water to these growing cities. That’s also another challenge when it comes to infrastructure, and how to get water into the cities to ensure that everybody is serviced.

“Unfortunately, some of our wastewater treatment works are not functioning and they discharge treated or very poorly treated water into our river systems. We’ve had a number of issues in Pretoria, where people have said, ‘look, you know, a weird smell is coming from our water’. If you think about it, those same people then have to now go and buy water, if they can afford to buy water, sometimes people have to take time off from work to go and get water. Sometimes, unfortunately, people drink water that might not be safe, they might get sick, and then there are the implications of them going to the hospital, spending money on adequate medication to treat whatever health consequence from drinking that poor water quality has occurred.”

Water, as Ubomba-Jaswa reminds us, does not just come from a tap. “A lot of people just really relegate it to the water they are drinking at the moment, but it’s much bigger than that.”

After a much-lauded and highly-successful first season, For Water For Life, the podcast presented by JoJo focusing on water is back for a second season.

As with the last series, we will have conversations around water security and its journey through the urban landscape, speaking to scientists, hydrologists, biodiversity experts, philosophers, divers, architects and activists.

Listen to the podcast here