Just how poisonous are Gauteng's rivers?

By Anna Louw and Anna Cox

Some rivers in and around Johannesburg are so toxic they could kill you.

And while official statistics are hard to come by - neither the City of Johannesburg nor the Ekurhuleni metro council were prepared to reveal them - statistics made available by Nicole Barlow, chairperson of the Environmental Conservation Association (ECA), show shocking levels of toxicity.

In the worst case, the Cheetah bridge in Alexandra shows E.coli levels of 2,4-million per 100ml, 240 times the acceptable level of 10 000 per 100ml.

E.coli is a bacteria that comes from human and animal waste. During rainfall E.coli may be washed into creeks, rivers, streams, lakes, or ground water. When these waters are used as sources of drinking water, it could pose health risks leading to severe cramps and diarrhoea.

Also up in the danger zone is Kaalspruit near Ivory Park with 1,9-million E.coli per 100ml.

This prompted Barlow to comment that drinking this was "enough to cause the death of an adult".

And Ekurhuleni metro's pollution control officer, Jan Bodenstein, has warned that the rivers and streams in the region are very polluted and appealed to the community not to use the water for drinking purposes.

Barlow fears that if the quality of the rivers is allowed to go unchecked and to deteriorate at the current rate, the E.coli-levels could eventually render our rivers and streams sewage catchment areas.

On the flip side, there are waste-recycling job opportunities which could be created if the problem is to be effectively addressed.

The big metros are being fingered for their failure to provide proper resources and the required skills needed for environmental policing and the implementation of by-laws governing water and environmental health.

One municipal officer said: "This country has the best environmental laws, but the environmental officers in the metros are experiencing a situation that can be equated to sending policemen out to crime scenes with cap-guns".

"We cannot scare people into being environmental law-abiding citizens.

"We cannot act against them, because we don't have the resources or the tools to safeguard and protect the quality of our water," he said.

The City of Johannesburg refused to answer queries on the state of the rivers and several non-governmental organisations claim that this is because the bacteria counts are so high that they by far exceed international standards.

Kim Keiser, founder of the Soul Foundation, an environmental non-governmental organisation dedicated to river health, said the city was doing nothing to prevent pollution of the rivers.

"There is not enough street cleaning done and all the rubbish lands up in the stormwater drains and goes into our rivers. The city needs a consistent river health programme, which does not exist.

"There is also no refuse removal whatsoever in some squatter areas in Alex and all their waste lands up in the Jukskei," she said.

Her words were echoed by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). The trust's manager of Marine and Coastal Working Group, Bernice McLane, said they would be assisting the Soul Foundation in the clean-up of rivers next month.

"We are concerned that the water that flows to the coastal areas is very polluted and that is why we are getting involved in this as a pilot scheme," she said.

Barlow agreed saying that the clean-up of rivers and streams should operate across metros.

"What you need is the metros to work together - Tshwane, Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni all work on their own and don't communicate or co-operate."

In a recent report commissioned by Bodenstein on the state of the rivers, Dr Pieter van Eeden, an environmental expert, expressed concern over the polluted Swartspruit - the main source of water supply to agricultural farming downstream - and also the Rietvlei Dam Waste Water Treatment Works, which produces potable water for the Tshwane metro.

Van Eeden said regular pollution incidents (such as Airports Company South Africa's huge fuel spills at OR Tambo International Airport over the past few years), and the impact on the main catchments, placed severe environmental pressure on agricultural and other types of surface water-dependant developments.

"Never mind the severe impact on aquatic ecosystems, which is also a legitimate water-user," he said.

Van Eeden's river health assessment was done nearly three years ago and found water quality to be "tolerable".

But Barlow says the situation has worsened considerably since the study was conducted and that the water quality was very poor.

"Personally I look at the health of a river in terms of quality, quantity, sediment and the riparian and levels of aquatic life - the absence of which makes the river system unhealthy."

Van Eeden said littering and illegal dumping has enormous impact on a river's ecological health.

He said another serious problem in the region is improper or poor stormwater management and suggested that instead of direct discharges of stormwater into rivers and streams, planning of new storm water reticulation networks should include off-stream or on-site stormwater retention and pollution-control ponds and low-cost litter traps.