Academic warns of groundwater pollution from cemeteries when Covid-19 deaths surge

University of Pretoria academic Prof Matthys Dippenaar has appealed to municipalities to monitor groundwater close to cemeteries. Image: Guillem Sartorio/AFP
University of Pretoria (UP) academic Prof Matthys Dippenaar has appealed to municipalities to monitor groundwater close to cemeteries as tens of thousands of Covid-19-related deaths are forecast in SA over the next few months.

“As the Covid-19 pandemic continues its scourge across the world, South African municipalities have been asked to prepare for the possibility of increased fatalities which might exceed current burial and crematoria facilities,” said Dippenaar, an associate professor in hydrogeology and engineering geology at UP’s faculty of natural and agricultural sciences.

“Apart from ensuring there are enough facilities, an equally important consideration is to ensure that death and burials occur safely, given the highly infectious nature of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“Because little is known about the virus, clarity is being sought around the risk to environmental and human health of the impending mass burials of Covid-19 victims,” Dippenaar said.

He said if municipalities continued to “site and monitor cemeteries correctly”, the country was “okay”.

“If we continue to correctly license and monitor our groundwater use, we are okay. The problem comes when we bypass the strict regulatory tools available, as the regulations help us to be diligent and forward-thinking.”

Groundwater, the university explains, is water-occupying openings underground from where water can readily move and be abstracted.

Above the groundwater table, water and air coexist in the openings, affecting the ease with which water can be extracted or mobilised.

“We therefore distinguish between the upper vadose zone of water-air mixtures, and the deeper phreatic zone of only groundwater,” Dippenaar explained.

“We rely on it for supply because groundwater is much more abundant on land than any other freshwater, including rivers and dams. And because of its abundance related to other sources of freshwater, polluting groundwater will indefinitely result in subsequent pollution of other water sources.”

According to Dippenaar, to be able to excavate to the required depths, and with suitable distance from water, cemeteries required “fairly” good land that could almost always be developed more feasibly with respect to economy.

“Somewhere, we need to be okay with the lower economic benefit of using good land for burial, because it is at an environmental and societal gain.

“Provided that the siting regulations and guidelines are followed, an environmental impact assessment is conducted and a water use licence is applied for, we have no cause for concern,” Dippenaar said.

By Nomahlubi Jordaan 

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