South Africa braces to protect groundwater from mass graves

Family members and funeral workers carry the coffin of a man who died from the Covid-19 coronavirus disease at a cemetery in Cape Town.
Image: REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

From building cemeteries away from human settlements to erecting fences around graves, SA is drawing up plans to protect the country’s water supply from contamination if mass coronavirus burials become a necessity.

Accessing land that is environmentally safe for mass graves is a long process, environmental experts say, warning that if the country’s death toll spikes the current cemetery space won’t suffice.

With researchers warning that little is known about how long the coronavirus survives in water, SA wants to avoid sudden, poorly planned burials that could result in the virus or other pathogens passing into water supplies.

“Cemeteries are areas of potential water contamination from pathogens in decomposing bodies,” Matthys Dippenaar, a groundwater expert from the University of Pretoria, said.

“But this has not been investigated for Covid-19. It is still possible that it can exist in water.”

Around the world, countries such as the US, Ecuador and Nigeria have been forced to rethink burials — from finding new space to bury the dead to streaming funerals — as coronavirus death rates soar.

“[The pandemic] is a wakeup call,” said Pepe Dass, chair of the SA Cemeteries Association (Saca), a non-profit administered and managed by municipal officials.

He said that national deaths now average at about 10 a day and this would put a strain on resources.

If the burials were poorly planned, he said, this could raise the risk that viruses, bacteria or even embalming chemicals could migrate through soil and into the country’s groundwater supply, making those who drink from it sick.

“We cannot have last-minute plans to deal with mass burials,” Dass said. “We need to ensure we are prepared for what may come next.”

Eunice Ubomba-Jaswa, a research manager at the Water Research Commission, which works with the department of water & sanitation, said the government had directed municipal authorities to start looking for potential mass burial sites.

“If cemeteries are constructed and sited properly there is no additional risk of water contamination occurring due to Covid-19 burials,” she said in e-mailed comments.

In March, Saca issued a set of guidelines to help municipalities prepare for emergency mass burials and cremation of Covid-19 victims.

They say burial sites should be in areas where the water table is at least 2.5 metres deep and the soil is a fine-grain mix of sand and clay, giving it low permeability. — Thomson Reuters Foundation

By Kim Harrisberg



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