Cholera’s ‘devastating comeback’, government determined to end disease

The people of Hammanskraal have been struggling to gain access to proper, clean water services. Now the area is battling a cholera outbreak. Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency (ANA)

The people of Hammanskraal have been struggling to gain access to proper, clean water services. Now the area is battling a cholera outbreak. Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 29, 2023


Disease outbreaks such as the cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal have been made far worse in situations of poor governance, weak management and poor maintenance of infrastructure and has forced President Cyril Ramaphosa’s hand to strengthen governance of municipal water and sanitation services.

Recent outbreaks of cholera in Hammanskraal in Gauteng and the Free State have shown the vital importance of safe and effective water and waste water management.

The outbreak has resulted in the deaths of 24 people in Gauteng and the Free State while hundreds have been hospitalised are deeply tragic, said Ramaphosa in his weekly newsletter to South Africans.

But, he said the government was determined to remedy its shortcomings in a sustainable way and as a matter of urgency.

He said poor governance, ineffective management, increasing debt and underspending on public infrastructure like wastewater treatment plans have all contributed to poor water quality.

Under these circumstances, the fact that many councils also underspend critical infrastructure grants was unacceptable, he added.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization and international relief organisations warned that after years of steady decline, cholera has made “a devastating comeback”, putting over a billion people in 43 countries at risk.

According to the WHO, 24 countries have had reported cases since the beginning of the year, including in parts of Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Ramaphosa commended authorities for their efforts to speedily assist all those affected, including setting up a field hospital in Kanana in Hammanskraal, providing additional water tanking services to residents and going into communities to raise awareness about proper hygiene.

But, an investigation is still underway into the source of the outbreak. Technical teams from the City of Tshwane, the Department of Water and Sanitation, and the provincial and national Departments of Health are carrying out water quality tests at distribution points, and water treatment works in the area.

They are also tracking and tracing infections. To date, the original source of the cholera infection has not been located, confirmed Ramaphosa.

However, he warned that this waterborne disease was highly transmissible in conditions where there was inadequate access to clean water and sanitation facilities.

Ramaphosa did concede that unreliable and poor-quality drinking water has been a problem in Hammanskraal for many years. According to the president, the Rooiwal wastewater treatment works, which is upstream of Hammanskraal, had not been well-maintained and had insufficient capacity to deal with the volume of wastewater entering the works.

“Over the years, in its role as the regulator of the water sector, the Department of Water and Sanitation has issued many directives to the City of Tshwane to address pollution from the Rooiwal Wastewater Treatment works. Regrettably, these directives were not acted upon.

“Consequently, the Department initiated legal action to force the City to use its grant from national government to refurbish and upgrade the wastewater treatment works,” he said.

While there must be full accountability for the failings that have resulted in the outbreak in Hammanskraal, Ramaphosa said that at this time, we should focus on the problem at hand, which is to stop the spread of cholera and take remedial measures to safeguard human health.

He also noted that the most recent Green Drop Report showed there had been a steady decline in the quality of water and sanitation services in municipalities.

Ramaphosa said that, across the country, the Department of Water and Sanitation was working with municipal managers and technical teams to ensure local councils use their water infrastructure grants effectively.

“As we wait for the results of the investigation into the cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal, it is critical that local government authorities continue to work closely with national government to address and overcome the immediate challenges with water quality in Hammanskraal.

“Quality water and sanitation is fundamental to the dignity of every South African,” he said.

Ramaphosa said he has since asked the Minister of Water and Sanitation to make recommendations to strengthen the governance, management and regulatory framework for municipal water and sanitation services.

This, he said, would include ensuring that national minimum norms and standards were comprehensive, adequately monitored and adhered to by all water service providers.

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