Colonel Andries Mahapa stands next to the one of the two Primary Settling Tanks successfully refurbished by SA Army engineers at the Sebokeng Waste Water Treatment Plant south of Johannesburg. Picture: SUPPLIED

Johannesburg - On October 24 last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the Vaal River sewage problem a national crisis and authorised the deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to urgently intervene because the local Emfuleni municipality (ELM) had failed. 

I led a team of specialists to the Vaal the very next day. We spoke with the ELM to determine the best approach to stabilise the situation and avert the looming humanitarian crisis.

In the meanwhile we deployed our troops consisting of sappers to secure these key point installations from vandalism and theft and our specialist architects, water care engineers, Geographical Information System specialists, artisans and scientists, to refurbish and maintain the water waste management systems, protecting the integrity of the Vaal River from raw human effluent being pumped straight into it – and to safeguard the health of the hundreds of thousands of people living on both banks of the river and beyond who depend on the water, literally for their survival.

Our arrival had immediate effects; we cut the vandalism and theft of pumping instruments and electrical equipment overnight. We immediately set up an E. coli scoreboard and monitor at the headquarters of our temporary base, recording the water pollution levels every day and began work at the Sebokeng Waste Water Treatment plant, especially on the three primary settling tanks (PST). Each PST is approximately 7m deep, filled to overflowing with 3m of compacted sludge at the bottom – a situation that had existed since 2008.

We estimated at the time it would take R1.1-billion to fix the crisis, money that the Defence Force certainly doesn’t have. The plan would have involved outsourcing certain aspects of the project too because of the limited wastewater equipment within the SANDF, given our operational mandate. Although the engineers are among the army’s most highly skilled and ingenious soldiers doing everything from mine warfare to water purification – and even building military installations, we have never been expected to manage waste water on the kind of scale we were being asked to. We had limited equipment for that particular task, given the sheer scale, nothing else, but we were not deterred.

The first phase of our mission was achieved with great success, characterised by quick wins; the E. coli count dropped dramatically, we secured the installations and we successfully refurbished and recommissioned two of the three PSTs and unblocking 10km of sewer lines at Sebokeng’s Moshoeshoe Road.

We also reached out to the community in very meaningful and impactful ways; a family in Boitumelo was able to celebrate Christmas for the first time ever after we fixed the running sewers that had flowed through their house and their yard for an entire year. We built an improvised bridge across a polluted and dangerous spruit in Tshepiso, allowing the community safe passage and unhindered access, where before they put their health in harm’s way just getting to the shops.

The problem though was funding. The projected budget we drew up envisaged maintenance costs and capital expenditure. This was rightfully the preserve of the Department of Water and Sanitation and as such, this department became the funder department for the project after a steering committee of all the relevant stakeholders comprising DWS, Rand Water, the local municipalities and the other relevant government departments including the SANDF was set up in March and April this year.

 In June we stopped all our refurbishment initiatives and our maintenance programmes out of respect of the DWS processes and continued with our mission which is the protection of the key point installations. Since then, there has been neither maintenance nor refurbishment and the e-coli levels into the Vaal River have spiralled upwards because the raw untreated effluent is being allowed straight into the river system’s various catchments.  

Unfortunately, the situation will get worse before it gets better because there are very distinct processes that have to be followed in terms of procurement. The project will also require DWS to outsource certain functions to the Ekurhuleni Water Care Company (Erwat) as a confirmed Wastewater specialist to assist with technical skills in resolving the crisis and beyond the intervention period.

Throughout this crisis, the SANDF has learnt incredibly valuable lessons from this operation. We were given one of the biggest peacetime missions, also known as Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW), that the engineer corps in particular has ever been tasked with in its long and proud history – managing 100 mega litres of wastewater. We were up to that challenge, we believed that we could have resolved this within the year we allotted to it, and we believe that we could have used this as a benchmark to be rolled out to other struggling municipalities within our own borders and similar potential humanitarian crises elsewhere in Africa.

The SANDF has learned vitally important lessons in terms of intra-governmental department co-operation together with our troops, most of whom were drawn from the Reserve Force: 3 Field Engineer Regiment in Durban and 19 Field Regiment in Cape Town, as well as 44 Para Engineer Regiment and 35 Engineer Support Regiment, who  attained critical skills in the essential service of waste water management that will stand them in good stead not just militarily but on their return to the civilian world too.

We are very proud members of a highly professional and disciplined military that faithfully operates on the tenets of mission and mandate. Our mission was given a set time frame which is due to expire soon. When we demobilise, we will do so knowing that we did everything we could – but also with the realisation that we could have done far better, but we were constrained by both the system and funding.

Should our principals wish to extend the operation, we will comply because supporting the people of this country has always been the secondary function of the SANDF after protecting the sovereignty of this country and the safety of its citizens. We also thank our chief for affording us the opportunity to serve the people of South Africa.

* Colonel Andries Mokoena Mahapa is the Officer Commanding the South African Army’s 1 Construction Regiment and the Commander of the SANDF’s Vaal River intervention task force.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.