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A South African Snapshot on World Environment Day

Global warming, the BP oil spill, rubbish in the oceans and a hole in the ozone are all reminders that the world as we know it is under threat. Never has it been more populated, or more polluted. People from around the world are increasingly banding together to do something about it with the creation of initiatives like World Environment Day.

An International Focus on a World Wide Problem

Celebrated on the 5th of June, World Environment Day aims to raise global awareness of the need to take positive steps to improve and guard the environment. Now in its 41st year the event commemorates the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment which was held on this day in 1972.

The theme for 2013 is Think.Eat.Save.and is an anti-food waste and food loss campaign with the aim of making people aware of the impact their food choices have on the environment.  More on this later as we take a look at some of the specific environmental issues that South Africa is facing at present.

Local Environmental Threats & Solutions

Like every other country in the world South Africa faces a number of environmental problems and is looking to creative solutions to turn things around.

What Are We Eating?

Fittingly tied in to the World Environment Day theme, an issue that’s gaining traction in South Africa is that of how our food gets produced. People are becoming better educated when it comes to battery chickens and genetically modified vegetables and fruit.

According to Andreas Späth South Africa is the only country in the world that allows genetically modified versions of its national staple, white maize, to be grown commercially. He notes that around 72% of all maize grown in the 2011/2012 period was GM.

Studies are still being conducted around genetically modified seeds and whether the food produced from them really is that unhealthy. So far a number of risks have been identified, as listed by WebMD:

- Introducing allergens and toxins to food
- Accidental contamination between genetically modified and non-genetically modified foods
- Antibiotic resistance
- Adversely changing the nutrient content of a crop

Whether all of these risks are proven to exist or not, the safer course of action is clearly to support local farmers (who don’t use GM seed) or even growing your own vegetables. Initiatives like The Backyard Farmer are also a great step in the right direction, offering communities plenty of tips and advice on growing their own food.

The Acid Issue

The South African economy is built on its mining sector and we’re one of the biggest exporters of gold, platinum and other ores in the world. The problem is that mining tends to cause a number of issues, the most pressing being acid mine water (most often associated with old, abandoned mine shafts).

Acid water is formed when surface water like rain water comes into contact with rocks that contain sulfur-bearing minerals. When the water comes into contact with these minerals a chemical reaction takes place and sulfuric acid is produced. When this acidic water flows into underground water tables, rivers or even comes into contact with soil it tends to have very harmful effects like contaminating drinking water, disrupting the growth of aquatic life and damaging metal structures like bridges.

A Locally Developed Solution

Earlier this year Business Day reported that a research group headed by Sunny Iyuke, head of the Wits School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, in conjunction with a professor from NASA have developed new technology to deal with acid mine water.

The team have created a special membrane using nanotechnology which can purify water by collecting all pollutants whilst letting the, now clean, water pass through it. Prof Iyuke believes the membranes present a practical solution as other methods of purifying the water are much more expensive. He’s not currently sure how much it will cost to produce the membranes but believes that it will still be more affordable than other options, once commercialized.

Natural Habitats under Threat

South Africa has some of the most bio-diverse areas in the world; the fynbos region in the Western Cape is a prime example of an area rich in flora found nowhere else in the world.  According to the South African Government the country contains “almost 10% of the world's total known bird, fish and plant species, and over 6% of the world's mammal and reptile species”, even though it only represents 2% of the Earth’s total land surface at 1.2 million km2.

Pollution and the construction of resorts and residential properties continue to threaten these incredibly sensitive environments.  Currently SA has 528 protected areas totaling 7.5 million hectares, or 6.2% of the total land area.

Unfortunately this still leaves much of the country’s precious habitats unprotected and, even some of the preserved areas like St Lucia have come under threat from developers seeking to utilize the area.

To date the South African public is still the best defender of these areas as citizens continue to oppose any infringements on the sanctity of these areas and are quick to point out any violations to the authorities, and the media.

Other local, environmental issues that are very much on the forefront at the moment is the scourge of rhino poaching as well as the pollution caused by our mines and factories. Neither of which have been solved, nor are even close to being solved at present.

Taking Action Locally

Whilst we’re still battling a number of issues and need many more innovative solutions there is something every South African can do on World Environmental Day – which is to take the Think.Save.Eat. message to heart and becoming aware of where our food is coming from, what the environmental impact is and making an informed decision on which products we support. Another great way to honour the environment is to cut down on food wastage as much as possible.

But why stop there? Why not take a look at our energy and water consumption as well? There are a myriad of products available to help cut down on wastage ranging from solar panels, gas water heaters, LED lighting, water saving shower heads and more.  These products are easy to use and can make a world of difference. Think, and do your bit to save the earth this World Environment Day.

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